By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
For the first time, this year, I sold my non-Passover products to a Gentile through a rabbi, after attending a class which taught that not only can we not eat leavened items on Passover, we can’t even own them, which I never knew before (despite over four decades of observing Passover!). What I had trouble understanding was the veracity of the sale. If I know that the Gentile knows that I know that he’s not going to really keep all the stuff sold in the synagogue, and will be coming in to the rabbi right after the holiday is over to “sell” it back, it looks to me like some kind of subterfuge just to get around the problem. How does this sale fulfill the Torah’s requirement to truly release ownership of your bread-products, in keeping with the spirit of the law? I’ve asked this of many and not received a satisfactory answer, so your comments will be appreciated.
Great question, one actually raised by early commentaries to the Code of Jewish Law! The answer goes deeply into the crux of the Torah’s requirement to relinquish ownership of chametz, or all leavened products made from the five species of grains.
Any chametz that we own, we are commanded to destroy by burning or in some other way, or to remove from our possession, in which case we would not need to destroy it, as the Torah only requires one to destroy chametz he owns. (See Exodus 12:15, 17-20.) The Talmud explains that underlying theme of this mitzvah is the Torah’s very stringent attitude towards one who consumes chametz during Pesach. The Torah itself, to help ensure that one would not come to eat that very chametz which is permitted all year, erected “fences” around the prohibition of eating chametz, to say one should not even own it or see it in their home.
What you are referring to, the sale of chametz, is not actually an enactment per se, rather a method devised by the rabbis to essentially remove the chametz from one’s possession through sale to a non-Jew. It was initially devised to help those who would sustain a considerable loss to destroy their chametz, such as the owner of a liquor store or a flour mill. It later became customary for all Jews, especially as our home storehouses of food have grown considerably over recent years, rendering it quite difficult and expensive to remove it or destroy it all.
In order to make sure the sale is real, both halachically and by secular law, they instituted a number of methods of acquisition to be performed between the rabbi (as agent of all those who appointed him to sell their chametz) and the Gentile. This assures a completely legal sale.
To answer your specific question, there is another act we do with our chametz, called bitul. Bitul means to declare null and non-existent all chametz still remaining in your possession that you may not have found, with a special statement uttered the night of bedika and the morning before Pesach. This is based upon a statement in the Talmud, that the Torah itself proclaimed all Jewish-owned chametz to be essentially ownerless on Pesach, as it forbade any benefit from chametz whatsoever. If so, how could one ever transgress owning chametz if the Torah proclaims it ownerless? Answers the Talmud, the Torah itself, to emphasize the stringency of this law, made it as if owned by the Jew, enough to violate the transgression, if he flagrantly does nothing to remove it from his possession.
To do the act of a sale shows one’s desire to have the chametz out of one’s possession, showing that he indeed cares and takes seriously the Torah’s obligation. Although he may reacquire it after Pesach, he has upheld the spirit of the law.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.
By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried