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Does Compost Count as Chametz?

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Yosh and I got a worm composter for our wedding – it’s true, we are just that dorky!  For the last week or so (yes, we got married in November, but the composter arrived in mid-February, and I finally got around to getting the worms last week), I’ve been the proud mom of a brood of about 1,000 wriggling, very hungry worms.

They live in the Worm Factory, pictured above (p.s. definitely not our kitchen), and  I couldn’t be more excited.  Yosh on the other hand, is a bit more squeamish about the whole thing, though I can’t blame him.  He suffered through a bit of worm trauma when his last roommate neglected to properly feed worms, and the bin quickly self destructed.

But aside from the nachas I feel over the little munchies - which was a definitely surprise – I was certainly not counting on our compost bin bringing up halachic (Jewish law) questions.  Then Passover entered the horizon.

Inspired by Arlyn’s recent post, “Can You Be Chametz-Free in 29 Days?” I started raiding the kitchen for old ends of challah,  bagel halves, and loaves of stale bread that I shoved in the freezer instead of throwing them away.  According to the Worm Factory guidebook, worms like to eat fruits and vegetables, starches of all kinds – pasta, doughnuts, rice, cereal, stale bread, etc. – and what they call “healthy snacks” – coffee grounds (a standout favorite among our worm crew), crushed egg shells, and tea bags.  What better way to slowly rid the house of chametz that we aren’t going to eat, then feed them to the compost bin?

But what happens if, when Passover begins next month, there is still some starchy debris hanging out in the pile that has not yet been converted to soil?  Do we own that chametz?  Are we benefiting from it because our worms are happy and healthy?  Do we need to, gulp, sell our bin to the neighbors?  Like any Jewish mother, I’m reluctant to let go and entrust them in someone else’s care.

I thought about consulting The Shmethicist on this one (and I’d definitely love to hear her thoughts), but I think we’re in need of a rabbinic opinion here – or three – on this one.  Help a worm-loving sister out!

Photo Credit: BWCN Farms

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8 Responses to “Does Compost Count as Chametz?”

  1. Lois Leveen Says:

    I’m no rabbi, but . . . maybe once it’s in the bin, it belongs to the worms.

    Although if that’s the case, you’d be hard pressed to repo the compost once it’s ready.

    What do farm-owning Jews do during Pesach . . . do all the livestock have to eat Pesadich feed? And would your wiggly wonders fall under the same Halakhic category?

  2. Modern Girl Says:

    Dog owners have to keep their dogs’ food consistent over Pesach. (When you change a dog’s food, they tend to get sick to their stomach). Because of this, I know my boyfriend’s family had to keep some chametz in the house last year. Since the dog and the worms don’t keep kosher, it’s ok as long as the stuff isn’t able to contaminate the kitchen, or anything that could effect the people food.

  3. Michael Fessler Says:

    As I understand it, to be chametz, something has to be “food.” Something that was once food, but is no longer edible, can’t be chametz. The Talmud’s benchmark for whether something is food or not: whether it is “nifsal me-achilat kelev” — not even fit to feed to a dog.

    So assuming that your compost is fairly decomposed, I don’t think there’s any reason to worry.

    Two related points:

    If you are worried about crumbs in cracks in the floor or other inaccessible places when cleaning for Pesach, rather than trying to remove them all, they can be soaked in bad-tasting liquid — this renders them inedible, so they aren’t chametz anymore. Mopping with ammonia or bleach (not together!!!) or another cleaning fluid should do it. I routinely go through a bottle or two of Simple Green spray cleaner the week before Pesach each year.

    And a funny story — apparently, Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik told his students that they didn’t need kosher-for-Passover toothpaste, since it’s not fit for a dog to eat. One of the students went home that night, and put some toothpaste in a bowl to see if the dog would eat it. It did! He came back the next day and told Rabbi Soleveitchik the results of his experiment. The answer: “That’s what you get if you use your dog as a posek (legal decisor)!”

    (another version has him saying, “Your dog is crazy.” Not sure which one I like better.)

  4. Dov Says:

    The version of the R’ Soleveitchik story I heard ended with, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your stupid dog?”

    I would add that even the fact that the chametz is mixed in with the worms and their droppings and all the rotting stuff is possibly sufficient to render it nifsal. The question isn’t whether a dog WOULD eat it, since dogs will eat just about anything, but whether it’s fit to feed a dog. I suppose we’re more squeamish about what we feed dogs than the dogs are about what they eat?

  5. Rabbi Shmuel Says:

    “I’m no rabbi, but . . . maybe once it’s in the bin, it belongs to the worms. ”

    and who do the worms belong to?:)

    That reminds me of a story iinvolving the theft of some books from the Chabad library by a nephew of the Rebbe. The Rebbe’s wife was deposed by the nephew’s attorney and asked who the books belonged to. She replied “The books and the Rebbe belong to the Chassidim!” Priceless.

  6. Lois The Shmethicist Says:

    Thanks for the detailed information on when food becomes nonfood. It made me think of those min-bagel necklaces they used to give out on Wonderama. Oh how I wanted one of those . . .

    Of course, they were made from Lender’s mini-bagels, which I would argue were NEVER fit to feed even a dog.

  7. Leah Koenig Says:

    Hey all –

    So here is the update, researched by my father-in-law (a.k.a. “my rabbi”):

    “Rav Tendler said that once you put the chometz into the compost, you are not going to re-eat it, and therefore at that moment it becomes lo ra’uy l’achilas kelev and would therefore be muttar to have in the house on Pesach. However, he suggested that we stop putting chometz into it a few days before Pesach (and obviously during pesach).”

    Done and done.

  8. Jerry Gach Says:

    Thanks for sharing detail information.

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