By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
This year, for the first time, I intend to sell my non-Passover products to a gentile through a rabbi, after attending a class that taught that not only can we not eat leavened items on Passover, but we can’t even own them, which I never knew before (despite more than four decades of observing Passover).
What I had trouble understanding was the veracity of the sale. I know that the gentile knows that I know 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. This 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 to many and not received a satisfactory answer, so your comments will be much appreciated.
— Micheal T.
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.
We are commanded to destroy any chametz that we own 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 the underlying theme of this mitzvah is the Torah’s very stringent attitude toward one who consumes chametz during Pesach. The Torah itself, to help ensure one would not eat that very chametz that is permitted all year, erected “fences” around the prohibition of eating chametz, so one should not even own it or see it in their homes.
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 the 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, etc. The sales later became customary for all Jews, especially as our home storehouses of food have grown considerably, rendering it quite difficult and expensive to remove it or destroy it all.
In order to make sure the sale is real and legally binding, both halachically and by secular law, the rabbis instituted several methods of acquisition to be performed between the rabbi (as agent of all those who appointed him to sell their chametz) and the gentile.
To answer your specific question, we do something else with our chametz — bitul. Bitul means to declare null and non-existent all chametz still remaining in your possession that you may not have found during your search.
This is performed through a special statement uttered the night of bedika (checking) 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 chametz, made it as if it is owned by the Jew to violate the transgression if he flagrantly does nothing to remove it from his possession.
To do the act of a sale exhibits one’s desire to have the chametz out of one’s possession, showing that he/she indeed cares and takes seriously the obligation of not owning chametz, as stated in the Torah. Although we 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.