Understanding Leaven

Hebrew Roots

Bread made with leaven has a sour taste
Bread made with leaven has a sour taste.

Each year near Passover, many in Judaism and an increasing number of Christians go through their cupboards and pantries in an effort to rid their houses of leaven. Some Christians do this as a result of getting back to the Hebrew roots of their faith. They may realize they are not bound by Mosaic law, but desire to remember or commemorate the festivals of YHWH in some degree. Understanding the festivals helps us to have a greater understanding of Jesus. As Paul said, “The law is a tutor leading us to Christ.” This article examines the questions, “Just what is leaven?”, and “What is/was the meaning of throwing it out once a year?”

Exodus 13: 3-7

Then Moses said to the people, “Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of slavery, for by a strong hand YHWH brought you out from this place. No leavened bread shall be eaten. Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. And when YHWH brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month. For seven days you shall eat unleavened (Matzah) bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to YHWH. Unleavened (Matzah) bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened (soured) bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory. 

Prefacing Note:

In this article, I have changed the terms unleavened bread to matzah and leavened to soured. The reason why is because the English terms “leavened” and “unleavened” tend to paint the mind picture of “puffed” and “un-puffed” or “risen” and “flat”. The actual Hebrew words, however, have the meaning of soured and sweet. The Hebrew word Matzah has the meaning of sweet (because this bread does not have the sour taste produced by leaven). Matzah (commonly translated as “unleavened” in English) is not a variation of the Hebrew word translated leaven, but it is a completely different word. Strong’s concordance says the following:

H4682
מצּה
matstsâh
mats-tsaw’
From H4711 in the sense of greedily devouring for sweetness; properly sweetness; concretely sweet (that is, not soured or bittered with yeast[/leaven]); specifically an unfermented cake or loaf, or (elliptically) the festival of Passover (because no leaven was then used): – unleavened (bread, cake), without leaven.

Matzah is sweet in comparison to sourdough bread (Chamets)
Matzah is sweet in comparison to sourdough bread (Chamets).

and, the word translated as leavened is not a variation of the word translated leaven, but a completely different word. Strong’s concordance says the following:

H2556
חמץ
châmêts
khaw-mates’
A primitive root; to be pungent; that is, in taste (sour, that is, literally fermented, or figuratively harsh), in color (dazzling): – cruel (man), dyed, be grieved, leavened.

Bread made with leaven has a sour taste
Bread made with leaven has a sour taste.

You can see, the word chamets (translated as leavened),  means sour or soured, not puffed or raised (although this is a side-effect of the souring). This is why I have replaced the English words leavened with soured and unleavened with Matzah. The point is not about puffy or flat, but about sour or sweet. Our modern English understanding of a “leavening agent” is something that causes rising or puffiness in baking, but I will show that this was not the view of the ancient Hebrews.

The Goal of This Article

Many bible commentators equate leaven with sin. In this article, I intend to show that leaven is better equated to teachings and not sin. Leaven is to bread as teachings are to the scripture.

Leaven sours and preserves the bread, as a side effect, it also puffs the bread and makes it easier to eat.  The addition of leaven to flour, water, and salt can change what would otherwise be  a hard, crunchy cracker into a beautiful smelling, soft loaf of sourdough bread. Similarly,good teaching or parable can change what would otherwise be a hard to understand scripture into an easier to “chew” piece of spiritual food.

Some leaven is always left over for the next day's baking
Some leaven is always left over for the next day’s baking.

A sourdough starter (which becomes leaven after it has been left-over from baking) can start off good, healthy, beneficial and uncontaminated, but can later become contaminated, defiled and unbeneficial, something suitable for the trash bin. This is something the ancient Hebrews would have experienced in their daily lives. Although they did not understand about germs and microbes, they would have seen their leaven turn nasty or their wine turn to vinegar at times. Similarly, a teaching (initially based on scripture) can start off good, healthy, beneficial and uncontaminated, but can later become contaminated and defiled with wrong philosophies and ideas. At this point, it too is suitable for the trash bin. The BIG problem was that the religious leaders were failing to recognize that their scripturally based teachings had gotten contaminated and rotten!

Contaminated leaven must be thrown out
Contaminated leaven must be thrown out.

The yearly command in the Torah to dispose of all leaven served as a way to keep their leaven, their sourdough starter cultures,  clean and uncontaminated. As with most physical scriptural commands, there is also a spiritual lesson for us. I believe the lesson is for us to, once a year (at least), toss out all of the teachings derived from scripture, the teachings that serve to make scripture easier to ingest and digest. We should throw them out, and spend the week of Matzah studying the scriptures alone. Return to the root and source of those teachings, for a week, and see what develops. If the same teachings develop…great, but perhaps our returning only to scripture for a week will help us to develop renewed, refined and healthier teachings.

What is Leaven?

In order to understand how obeying a physical command can instruct us spiritually, we must first understand the physical. As with many other things, our understanding of leaven has been skewed and twisted by false statements and our western culture.
To the Hebrews, leaven was leftover sourdough or an active sourdough starter. It was the left over from the previous day’s bread making. They did not go to the market to buy packets or containers of yeast. Dried baker’s yeast, that we are familiar with, has only existed in its dry powder form since around World War II.

Modern baker's yeast is not what the Bible describes as leaven
Modern baker’s yeast is not what the Bible describes as leaven.

In order to understand my points in this article, it will be necessary to understand the sourdough bread making process. In fact, it was learning the art of sourdough bread making, in the winter of 2010, that gave me this understanding. I had to understand the physical before I could understand the spiritual.

Sourdough bread is made by using a leaven cultured from a combination of various wild yeast and bacteria strains. It is the various strains of lactobacillus that create the sour taste (lactic acid). The lactobacillus bacteria also act as a preservative that prevents the proliferation of food spoiling bacteria. Sourdough bread from different parts of the world have different flavors and characteristics due to the different grains used, and the different species of microorganisms present on those grains.
Anyone can easily make their own sourdough culture in about a week with just some whole grain flour and water. It is primarily the people who sell sourdough starters that try to convince you how “difficult” it is to culture your own sourdough starter. This is similar to how those who “sell” scriptural interpretations often try to convince you how difficult it is to come up with your own scriptural interpretation. I hope to show with this article that YHWH is begging us to produce our own leaven (teachings and interpretations).
There is a lot of information available online about how to make a sourdough starter, so I will not elaborate too much on it here. I would highly recommend making your own culture, and baking your own sourdough bread. Then you will actually have some real leaven to throw out for the festival of Matzah. You will be sad to see it go.

A Word Study

Below is the Hebrew root that is translated as the English word leaven.
H7603
שׂאר
śe’ôr
seh-ore’
From H7604; barm or yeast cake (as swelling by fermentation): – leaven.
Strong’s says it comes from this root which means left over.
H7604
שׁאר
shâ’ar
shaw-ar’
A primitive root; properly to swell up, that is, be (causatively make) redundant: – leave, (be) left, let, remain, remnant, reserve, the rest.

Please notice that the roots are spelled with the exact same three Hebrew letters!

And another root meaning left over…
H7605
שׁאר
she’âr
sheh-awr’
From H7604; a remainder: – X other, remnant, residue, rest.

Do you see how the Hebrew letters are the same for all three words? The only differences are the vowel pointings, which were not present in the original text. Therefore, one had to discern which pronunciation to use by context, but it was always the same three letters used. It is more like one word with different pronunciations for slightly different applications, but all the pronunciations had to do with the idea of a leftover or remainder!
I will suggest to you that Strong’s “swelling by fermentation” is not related to “left over, or remaining”, but this part of his definition is simply a reflection of our twisted western thinking of what leaven is. In our western understanding of leaven we believe it is something that raises or puffs, but in the Hebrew understanding of leaven, it is something that makes sour. The word leaven is related to left over because you always make sure to have some of your dough left over for your next batch of bread!
Now if we do a word search for H7604, “a left over” let’s see what comes up.

  • When the flood had ended…

Gen 7:23 So He wiped off all that stand, which were on the face of the ground – both man and beast, creeping creature and bird of the heavens. And they were wiped off from the land. And only Noaḥ was left (שׁאר), and those with him in the ark. Notice that Noah, his family, and the animals were not puffed up or swollen, but they were left over! Noah, his family, and the animals on the ark were the leaven, which was left, to start a new beginning!

  • When Jacob was to meet his estranged brother Esau, he divided his family into two groups…

Gen 32:8 and he said, “If Ěsaw comes to the one group and attacks it, then the other group which is left (נשאר  ) shall escape.” (If part of Jacob’s family was destroyed, there would be some left, some “leaven”, to begin again!)

  • Jacob speaking of Benjamin…

Gen 42:38 But he said, “My son is not going down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is left (נשאר ) alone. If any harm should come to him along the way in which you go, then you would bring down my gray hair with sorrow to the grave.” (the sons of Rachel have been divided, and in Jacobs mind one-half had been destroyed, he did not want to part with Benjamin, who was left over).

In the original text, the examples above translated left or left over appear the same, or very similar, as they would’ve if the word had been translated as leaven. It is the context that tells the reader whether it should be pronounced shâ’ar (left over/remnant) or śe’ôr (leaven). The actual root is the same. It is obvious to see the connection here. Leaven is always left over in part when you bake bread so that you can continue to bake daily. Leaven does not represent sin but represents something that is fed, nourished and cherished (as you would with a great sourdough starter). Leaven represents our ideas and teachings that we feed, nourish, cherish, and share with others. Yes, we share our leaven. A good starter is something to be cherished, but also something that we are compelled to share with others. Many people have started baking sourdough bread because someone gave them a thriving starter. Similarly, many have come to study the Bible daily, because someone gave them a good biblically based teaching. Sadly, many people are convinced that they could never interpret the scriptures themselves, but they rely solely on the teachings and interpretations of others. Some Bible “teachers” are deliberately deceptive, and their “teachings” are a rotten putrefied mess that should have been tossed out many a Festival of Matzah ago.

Upon further research, I have found that of the 133 times H7604 occurs it is rendered in 24 different variations. Of those, there are 3 times that it is rendered exactly the same as H7603 (leaven). These three exact matches are Gen 7:23 (quoted above)…
Isa 11:11  And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant(H7605) of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.

Isa 11:16  And there shall be a highway for the remnant(H7605) of his people, which shall be left (H7604 ), from Assyria; like as it was to Israel in the day that he came up out of the land of Egypt.
In both scriptures above, the word translated remnant (H7605) is also rendered exactly the same as H7603 (leaven). So in the original text, these two words were spelled the same. All 26 occurrences of “remnant” are rendered exactly the same as “leaven” in the original text. I have found the HOTC (Concordance to the Tanakh) very helpful, as it shows you the different forms each word is rendered in.

The Leaven of the Pharisees

The great sin of the Pharisees was that they refused to let go of their own teachings each year and go back to Scripture. Their teachings were based on scripture but gradually grew into something of their very own with very different characteristics than what they originally got from the scriptures. They had in effect broken the Festival of Matzah, in a spiritual sense, for many many years. That is why Jesus/Yeshua warned us to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees. It is not that leaven itself is bad or sinful, but that the Pharisee’s leaven, or prized teachings, had strayed way too far from scripture.
A modern example is the rabbinic “teaching” that meat and dairy can not be served together. It is an idea that is based on scripture.

Exo 23:19  The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk
The rabbis took this command more than a step too far. They came up with the reasoning that if one ate meat and dairy in the same meal, they might inadvertently drink milk or eat cheese from the mother while they were eating the meat of her offspring, and that the two could possibly “boil” in the stomach. Now if they would have tossed this ridiculous teaching out each year, and went back to pure Torah to form their teachings, they would have soon seen that Abraham himself served dairy and meat to three messengers, one of whom was named YHWH! They all ate the dairy mixed with the meat! It should be obvious that this type of meal is perfectly acceptable to YHWH.
Jesus’ leaven or teachings were straight from scripture. He constantly returned to the source, the Torah, the “wild yeast”, to form his teachings, HIS leaven.

But Doesn’t the Bible Equate Leaven With Sin?

No…The Bible does not equate the two…teachers do. This is exactly the point that I am trying to make with this article. If you feel the Bible equates the two, then get out your concordance and check it yourself. Throw out the idea or “teaching” that the two are equated, and go and see what the scriptures actually say. You might want to read in context all the occurrences of the following words…

  • H7603 (leaven) occurs 5 times
  • H7604 (left over/remnant) occurs 134 times
  • H2557 (ferment) occurs 13 times
  • G2219 (ferment) occurs 13 times, from G2204 (bubbly/zealous/fervent)occurs 2 times

Jesus repeatedly warned his followers about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He did not warn them that leaven itself was bad or represented sin, but that it was the leaven of these teachers that was  to be avoided. More than once the scriptures said Jesus was NOT talking about a type of bread, and twice they actually define what the leaven of these teachers actually was…

Mat 16:11  How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees?

Mat 16:12  Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine [teachings] of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.

Luk 12:1  In the mean time, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, insomuch that they trode one upon another, he began to say unto his disciples, first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.
Clearly the scriptures have defined the leaven of the Pharisees as hypocritical doctrine/teachings.

Jesus’ and Paul’s comments on Leaven

When Jesus speaks of leaven most of the time he is referring specifically to the leaven of the Pharisees and/or Sadducees, which he defined as hypocritical doctrine. Matthew and Luke also record one other mention of leaven. In this case, the context is not negative…

Mat 13:33  Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.

Luk 13:20-21  And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.
The subjects of  Jesus’ parables were always things the people were very familiar with. They all knew that a small amount of sourdough/leaven, mixed with a large amount of dough, would soon sour (with the side benefit of raising) the whole lump. I believe that what Jesus was foretelling was how a small group of believers, [those who had the teachings (leaven) of Jesus the Messiah], positioned within three groups of people, would be the starter/leaven responsible for transforming the entire group. In this parable, the leaven is obviously good and beneficial, certainly not sin. Jesus did not say sin would be responsible for making the kingdom of God grow to completion. As a side note, soured bread is protected from the attack of mold and other pathogens, it keeps for a very long time, similar to other fermented foods.
Paul’s comments to the Corinthians are in line with what I have covered above. He was instructing them to toss out their former pagan ideas and ways, and also to remove incestuous fornicators from the congregation. Especially in preparation for the feast. I have inserted my thoughts in brackets below…
1Co 5:6-8  Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth [sours] the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven [expel the incestuous fornicators from the congregation along with their false teachings], that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven [toss out your old pagan teachings], neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth [become a clean slate, so Yah’s law can be written on your heart].

What Did the Hebrews Leave Behind in Egypt?

Exo 12:34 And the people took (H5375) [possibly can be translated as cast or burned] their dough before it was leavened, having their kneading bowls bound up in their garments on their shoulders.
They took (possibly cast out or burned) their dough, which was in the process of souring and rising, but remember dough mixed with real leaven took a long time to sour, not like today when bread made from “instant yeast” puffs up (doesn’t sour) in a short time. Notice it says they had their kneading troughs packed up to go. They were ready for the journey of the Exodus, they had their troughs packed, their sandals on their feet, their hips girded, and they ate in haste. Likely, they kept their leaven in their kneading troughs, which were now packed up! There was no other place to store the sticky gooey leaven, they had to leave it behind! It would be a while before they would have leaven (left over sourdough).
But I ask you…what else were they to leave behind in Egypt? Was it just their literal leaven, or was it also ideas that had been passed down to them while in Egypt? Ideas that had been nourished and fed for hundreds of years,  ideas that had strayed from the truth that Abraham knew. Ideas that had developed into new different foreign, and contaminated teachings and practices.

Yeast is Not Leaven

Leaven is a leftover bit of wet sourdough that includes a mix of various species of yeasts and bacterium. It is something that is fed, nourished and cared for on a regular basis. Yeast, on the other hand, is virtually everywhere. No matter how well the Israelites cleaned their homes before Passover, there were always millions or billions of yeast microbes in them, on them and all around them. It was on their vegetables and grain they ate. Even in and on the matzah that they prepared. It is impossible to rid your homes of yeast. YHWH would not have  commanded his people to do the impossible. Understanding what leaven truly is will help one to understand how to dispose of it, and what disposing of leftover dough should really mean in a spiritual sense.
The Hebrews also ate many other fermented foods that contained yeasts and/or lactobacillus. They were not commanded to get rid of their…

  • yogurt
  • cheese
  • wine

In fact, wine was part of the Passover meal. Koreans are not commanded to get rid of their kimchi, Germans are not commanded to get rid of their sauerkraut,  yet these things contain the same or similar microorganisms.
Perhaps the focus was on leaven (as opposed to other fermented foods), because the Hebrews, more than likely, learned the art of sourdough bread making in Egypt. Leaving their leaven behind was symbolic of leaving behind other things they had learned in Egypt. It was a time of refining ahead for them.

What to Throw Out

That is your decision. I have shown that leaven is a wet doughy mixture that is left over from the previous day’s bread making. It is derived from grain and the naturally occurring organisms on and around the grain. It is fed, nurtured, and cared for on a regular basis. It is what they used to sour/preserve and raise their bread. If you have some of this, then you may want to get rid of it before the Festival of Matzah. Do you have soured bread or things that contain soured bread? You may want to throw those out too (you decide).

I do not plan to search through my pantry, reading the ingredients on every can, bag and package to see if anything contains yeast or yeast extract. I will not be throwing out my kimchi, yogurt, wine, beer, soy sauce, vinegar, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, cheese etc…even though all these things contain much of the same stuff as leaven. I also plan to avoid any and all teachings of others and my own, and only read the scriptures for the week of Unleavened Bread, because I believe that this is the greater spiritual lesson to be learned from the physical.

I believe Christians are neither able, nor required, to keep the Mosaic law, but I do see the benefit in learning and experiencing what we can from it, as it teaches us about Jesus the Messiah (see Galatians chapters 3 and 4).

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