Pesachim 4 Searching for Chametz with an electric torch

The first Mishna of the masechta told us that the search for chametz needs to be done the night before Pesach by candlelight.

On our daf, Rav Nachman bar Yitchak explains that the reason the search was instituted the night before and not the day before Pesach is because

  1. People are usually at home at night
  2. The candlelight is good for searching at night.

The second reason might be required in order that we should not think that people who are at home during the day should be allowed to intentionally do their search then- even for them, the search needs to be done by candle and a candle is not that effective at night! (see Ritva, Meiri, Rabbeinu Yonatan and other who make this point.)

 He does not explain, however, why one cannot simply search during the day by sunlight- The assumption seems to be that searching with a candle is an intrinsic part of the mitzva.

Whether one explains like Rashi that the reason for the search is to avoid the prohibition of owning chametz on Pesach or like Tosfos that the reason for the search is due to a concern that one might come to eat chametz on Pesach that one has nullified, it stands to reason that the mitzva is goal-oriented and the main thing is that the chametz is found- how it is found should be less relevant.

As such, while we can understand that regular sunlight might not be suitable enough to achieve this purpose, any form of light which is at least as good or better for this purpose should be perfectly acceptable.

Whereas a candle might have been the most suitable item for this at the time that Chazal instituted this practise, a good quality easy to handle electric torch certainly seems to be even more suitable.

Although the Gemara (Pesachim 8a) gives various reasons why a flame-based torch (made up of more than one wick) may not be used, none of those reasons seem to apply to an electric torch which is more flexible, safe, and stable than a regular one-wick candle.

Yet there is also the possibility that whatever the reason Chazal required a candle, they instituted the mitzva specifically with a candle, and once they did that, the only way the mitzva may be fulfilled is with a candle.

Rashi, on our daf, gives us a “heads-up” and tells us that the Gemara later on actually derives the requirement to use a candle from a verse, strengthening the possibility that there might be more to this requirement than meets the eye.

Fast forward to Daf 7b, and Rav Chisda, later supported by a Beraisa, indeed derives the requirement for a candle from a string of גזירות שוות (comparisons based on similar language) which indicate that a search should be done with a נר  (candle.)

The Beraisa points out that this is not an actual proof but a זכר לדבר (a form of hint) and given that the whole requirement of the search is דרבנן (rabbinical,) it seems rather obvious that this is at the most an אסמכתא .

Nevertheless, the fact that Chazal were not satisfied simply to provide a practical reason why a candle needs to be used but chose to base the requirement on an elaborate string of דרשות, does seem to indicate that there is something deeper about this requirement above the simple reasoning that they gave.

The sugya there, however, proceeds to tells us that one may not use an אבוקה (torch made by a collection of more than one candle), sunlight, or moonlight for the search, but must use a candle, seeing as it is יפה (nice or suitable) for the search, the same reasoning given back on our daf.

This seems to shift the focus back to practical reasoning, and the Gemara in fact immediately points out that an אכסדרה  (outdoor structure/porch with lots of sunlight) or area in the house directly under an ארובה  (skylight) may indeed be searched by sunlight, a seemingly clear indication that the candle is less an intrinsic requirement of the mitzva and more a matter of utility.

The reasoning seems to be that there is usually not sufficient sunlight indoors to perform the search properly, but there is enough sunlight to render the candle ineffective – As such, the search is done at night where the superior light of a candle can be used.

In areas where the sunlight is strong enough to replace the candle, this is not necessary.

The Rishonim  (see, for example the Ran based on the Yerushalmi) are bothered by this leniency, however, given that the search is supposed to be done at night, for the two reasons mentioned earlier, so when would one ever come to do it by sunlight .

They reply that the Gemara is merely saying that for one who was unable to search at night at the optimal time, and is then required to do so in the day, sunlight is sufficient in an area that is exposed to plenty of it- in a case where the mitzva is already being performed sub-optimally and the candle does not have much effect anyway, whatever special relevance the candle has in the mitzva is outweighed by the superior impact of the sunlight.

Once we have admitted that this is already not the ideal way of doing the mitzva, the possibility again opens up that not only is the night an ideal component of the mitzva, but so is the candle itself, and that when the mitzva can be performed with a candle, even if there is an equally effective way of doing so, the candle should still be used!

Of course, even if this true, there is still room to argue that an electric light is considered to be a candle, at least for the purposes of this Mitzva, particular the original type with incandescent bulbs that actually burn (as opposed to fluorescent bulbs and modern day LED’s which do not.)

Although we have only come to study and raise the issues and not make halachik rulings, those interested in following up will note that some modern poskim seem to hold that the mitzva can indeed be fulfilled with an electric torch with a focussed light.

Some even seem to favor this as the concern for fires is lower and a more focussed search will thus result, but general practise seems to be to follow the longstanding custom of using a candle where possible, and amongst some, such as Chabad Chasidim, this is taking extreme seriously for more mystical reasons, which we have seen might indeed be at least hinted at in our sugya.

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

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