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Hagh HaMassot - “Leaven”
Reprinted and updated with permission from An Introduction to Karaite Judaism ©2002, al-Qirqisani Center for the Promotion of Karaite Studies - all rights reserved

In the Torah, there are three different things we are prohibited from consuming, or possessing, over Hagh HaMassot that in English translations are usually lumped together under the catch-all term – “leaven”. These items – Se’or, Hames, and Mahmeset, are actually distinct. Hakham Dawid Ben-Abraham al-Fasi’s, Kitab Jami‘ al-Alfaz (ed. S.L. Skoss, New Haven, 1936-1945) includes two relevant entries in his dictionary. HAMES (vol. 1, p. 560, lines 67-69): mukhtamar (“something soured/fermented”); and SE’OR (vol. 2, p. 300, lines 73-75): Se’or = خمير khamir (“leaven, sourdough”), Hames = مختمر mukhtamar (“something soured/fermented”) and Mahmeset = anything that uses (i.e., contains) بنّ  bunn (“coffee beans” [which are allowed to ferment in order to separate the coffee bean from the surrounding flesh of the coffee “cherry”]), كشك kishk (a mixture of bulgur [steamed cracked wheat] and fermented milk that is dried; for a description check Edward Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Day Egyptians), and كامخ kamakh (“pickles”). Hakham Dawid al-Fasi’s definitions align with one of the views expounded by Hakham Yefet Ben-‘Eli (Paris Bibliotheque Nationale ms.). The Arabic root خمر Kh-M-R is the same as the Hebrew root חמר Heit-Mem-Resh, meaning to ferment, and, like the Arabic word خمر Khamr [wine], Hebrew has חמר Hemer [wine] (see Devarim [Deuteronomy] 32:14). See also Hakham Aharon Ben-Eliyahu, Sefer Gan ‘Eden, ‘Inyan Hagh HaMassot, ch. 1, fol. 45, col. b38, and Hakham Eliyahu Bashyachi, Adderet Eliyahu, ‘Inyan Hagh HaMassot, ch 4, Odessa, 1872, fols. 66-67.39

     Hames is anything that has soured, such as vinegar, wine, yoghurt, cheese, and leaven. Hames is edible.

Shemot [Exodus] 12:15
‘Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove Se’or [leaven] from your houses. For whoever eats Hames [anything leavened/soured] from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Yisra’el [Israel]’.

     Se’or is a mixture that has fermented (literally, it has soured) and therefore can be used for leavening (though not always). For example sourdough starter [which is how bread was leavened before the isolation of yeast cultures] is Se’or. Se’or is not edible by itself - it is added to dough to leaven it.

Devarim [Deuteronomy] 16:4
‘For seven days no Se’or shall be found with you in all your territory, and none of the flesh of what you slaughter on the evening of the first day shall be left until morning.’

     Mahmeset is a mixture of Hames or Se’or with another item. For example, a seasoning that contains vinegar (which is Hames) would be considered Mahmeset.

Shemot [Exodus] 12:19-20
‘For seven days no Se’or [sourdough/leaven] shall be found in your houses, since whoever eats Mahmeset [something that contains anything that is soured/fermented], that same person shall be cut off from the congregation of Yisra’el [Israel], whether [he is] a stranger or a native of the land’.

     The last two Hakhamim, following the Rabbanite Mishnah, say there are six types of grain that we know can readily become Hames (the Mishnah limits Hames to just the first five and discounts any other Hames):

  1. Hita’ (Common Wheat [Triticum æstivum])

  2. Kusemet (Emmer Wheat (Triticum dicoccum], erroneously translated as Spelt [Triticum spelta], which did not exist in the Middle East at the time of the Mishnah, and misapplied in Modern Hebrew for Buckwheat [Polygonum fagopyrum], which does not grow in the Middle East but in Russia and northern Central Asia

  3. Se‘orah (Barley [Hordeum vulgare])

  4. Shibbolet Shu‘al (literally “fox sheave”, the Mishnaic name for a variety of barley), mistranslated in modern times as Oats [Avena sativa], which also was unknown in the Middle East in Mishnaic times
    There are two varieties of Barley: two-row [Hordeum distichon] and six-row [Hordeum hexastichon]. It is possible, from its appearance, that Shibbolet Shu‘al is the Mishnaic name for the latter. The Mishnah states that Se‘orah and Shibbolet Shu‘al are of the same species and not subject to the prohibition on Kila’im [mixing/hybridising]

  5. Shippon (Einkorn Wheat [Triticum monococcum]), misapplied in modern Hebrew for Rye [Secale cereale], which also was not native to the Middle East
    The Mishnah also says that Kusemet and Shippon are of the same species and not subject to the prohibition on Kila’im [mixing/hybridising]

  6. Dohan (Millet [Panicun miliaceaum])

    However, they state clearly that we must test all things to see whether or not they can become Hames or just rot.

     To sum up, anything soured/fermented or has anything soured/fermented added to it is forbidden to consume or even possess during Hagh HaMassot. According to the Torah, the penalty for consuming any of this is to be cut off from ‘Am Yisra’el [the people of Israel], so, if in doubt, it is always better to err on the side of caution, rather than risk such a severe penalty.

38Aharon distinguishes between Se’or (something inedible which is added to dough to leaven it, i.e. leaven), Hames (edible, e.g. bread, wine, cheese,yoghourt, etc.), and Mahmeset (something to which Hames or Se’or has been added, such as Shekhar HaMadday [date beer into which a concoction of barley is added]).

39Bashyachi explains that Hames refers both to flour mixed with leaven and also to flour mixed with water, which is allowed to rest for a while before being baked. In his definition of Mahmeset he explains that Shekhar HaMadday is an alcoholic beverage (“like wine”) made by immersing leavened bread in water, allowing it to rest (and ferment) in sunlight for many days, and then pounding it.