Delving into validity of chametz transaction

Dear Rabbi Fried,
For the first time, this year, I intend to sell my non-Passover chametz 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, 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.
Dear Micheal,
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 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 that one would not come to eat that very chametz which is permitted all year, erected “fences” around the prohibition of eating chametz that 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. 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 and legally binding, both halachically and by secular law, the rabbis 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.
To answer your specific question, there is another act we also 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 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 indeed cares and takes seriously the Torah’s obligation of not owning chametz. Although he re-acquires it after Pesach, he has upheld the spirit of the law.

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