Inedibles on Pesach

Rabbi Eli Gersten

Unlike other year-round forbidden foods, chametz (leavened grain and its by-products) has unique restrictions on Pesach: not only are we forbidden from consuming it, (issur achila), we are also prohibited from deriving any benefit from it (issur hanaah).

Each year the OU publishes a list of non-food items that are acceptable to use on Pesach even without special Pesach certification (Available here.) The vast majority of these items are approved because the OU has determined that they do not contain chametz. A small minority, however, are permissible even though there is a possibility that they may contain minute chametz. How can that possibly be?

The Talmud teaches that we are forbidden to eat a non-slaughtered animal, but once the meat spoils, the prohibition is removed. Halacha recognizes two levels of inedibility; items that are unfit for human consumption, and items that would not even be eaten by a dog. Most non-kosher foods, including non-slaughtered animals, lose their non-kosher status once they reach the threshold of being unfit for human consumption. Regarding chametz, the halacha is different. A spoiled loaf of bread that would still be eaten by a dog must be destroyed before Pesach, because while a person would not eat such bread, the bread can still be used to ferment other dough (for this food purpose it is still edible). Therefore, Torah does not only forbid owning edible chametz, it also specifically forbids owning sourdough (chametz that is inedible). Only once bread spoils beyond the point that even a dog would not eat it does it lose its status of chametz.

But there is one more caveat. Even if we incinerate chametz before Pesach, we are still forbidden to eat the ashes. This is due to the principle of achshivei (restoring its importance). By consuming the charred remnants of the chametz, we are attesting to the fact that we still consider it a food. On a rabbinic level this is forbidden. However, we are permitted to own and benefit from incinerated chametz and the same applies to chametz that is nifsal (spoiled), to the extent that it would no longer be eaten by a dog.

Some of the products on the OU list taste terrible (e.g. soap), some are poisonous or dangerous (e.g. oven cleaner) and some are not food items at all (e.g. plastic plates); all of the items on this list meet the higher standard of inedibility (i.e. they are not fit for consumption by a dog).

Toothpaste, Mouthwash and TREATMENTS

These items are subject to a disagreement among rabbinic authorities. The question hinges on whether we can accurately describe them as being nifsal. It is a safe assumption that no one would sit down to drink a cup of mouthwash; however, these items are loaded with sweeteners and are given a palatable flavor. Some rabbis have argued that the term nifsal cannot be applied under these circumstances. Because the product is deliberately purchased based on the consumers flavor preference, we run into the concern of achshivei. The OU does not take a position on this matter and recommends that everyone consult their rabbi for guidance.

Paper Plates (Paper Towels, Napkins)

Although paper (especially biodegradable paper) can be made from corn or wheat stalks, this is not a concern. Stalks are not chametz. They are not even considered kitniyot. Only the kernels of wheat or corn are forbidden on Pesach; the stalks are fine. However, paper products often contain starch. Although paper plates themselves are inedible, shouldn’t we be concerned that the starch can leach out of the plate and into our food? Shouldn’t this be similar to placing hot food on a chametz plate that was not kashered for Pesach? Even though a plate is inedible, we may not use a chametz plate on Pesach unless it was kashered. Shouldn’t the same apply to a paper plate?

There is a fundamental difference between a chametz plate and a paper plate. The starch used to make paper plates is not chametz. It would be at most kitniyot. Common sources of starch in the paper industry include corn (kitniyot) and potato (not kitniyot). A small amount of starch is used in the paper-making process. It is mixed with pulp to strengthen the body of the plate, and in the coating to bind together chemicals that are applied to the surface for gloss. In either case, the starch is the minority, and the rule with kitniyot is that it is nullified in a simple majority. A real plate that was used with chametz or kitniyot requires kashering (assuming it is made of a material that can be kashered for Pesach [See Kashering Primer on page 18]). Even if it was only used with a small amount of chametz, the chametz cannot be nullified in the plate. This is because the plate remains whole, and only the taste that was absorbed in the plate leaches out into the food. That is not the case with a paper plate. There are no two separate entities. The starch is nullified in the plate and will leach out together with the rest of the plate. Since the kitniyot will always remain in the mixture, it is nullified and does not pose a concern.

Creams, lotions and perfume

Creams, lotions and perfumes often contain alcohol. For the most part alcohol used in these products is not chametz. Isopropyl alcohol and methanol are not made from grains. Even ethanol is likely not chametz, as the vast majority of industrial ethanol in the US is made from corn (Kitniyot). There are parts of the world were chametz ethanol is more common, nonetheless to avoid alcohol tariffs the alcohol is denatured rendering it nifsal. Additionally, the creams, lotions and perfumes into which alcohol may be mixed are certainly nifsal and therefore non-problematic for Pesach.

Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked about the permissibility of using creams that contain chametz alcohol. He ruled that it is permitted, since the alcohol was added to the cream before Pesach, it is considered  nifsal and no one will consume them. In truth, there are two reasons to permit the use of these products on Pesach. The alcohol is denatured and there is a good chance that it contains no chametz at all.

Medications – non-chewable pills

The OU sanctions the use of non-chewable pills on Pesach provided that they are taken for medicinal purposes. Non-chewable pills are bitter and are unfit for human consumption. Any chametz that might be present in the pill was rendered inedible before Pesach. Although earlier we explained that one may not intentionally swallow chametz that was charred or otherwise made inedible before Pesach, because of the concern of achshivei; this does not apply to medications. Consuming medicine does not show that one considers it to be food. One who is ill will take medicine even if it tastes terrible, because they understand its necessity.

Chewable pills and liquid medicines often have flavors and sweeteners added to make them taste better. Although these medicines are often still not the most pleasant tasting, they are no longer considered nifsal. If one is a choleh she’yaish bo sakana (sick with a potentially life-threatening illness) then he/she must take any necessary medicine even if it contains chametz. If there is no sakana (danger) then one should discuss with their pharmacist and rabbi if there is an alternative form of the medicine that does not contain chametz or is available as a non-chewable pill. (For a discussion of the halachic ramifications of gelcaps, please click here.)

Download the OU Guide to Passover 2019 here.

Rabbi Eli Gersten
Rabbi Eli Gersten serves as OU rabbinic coordinator and recorder of OU policy.

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