Understanding the selling of chametz

Dear Rabbi Fried,
We have recently become observant, this being our first Passover kept according to strict Jewish law. We never heard about selling the “chametz” to a non-Jew before; all we knew was not to eat bread. We also learned that whatever leavened products are not sold to a non-Jew are forbidden even after Passover, which was a real shocker to us! This leads to our question: We have a significant amount of scotch and bourbon from years past; some of it consists of rare limited edition bottles passed down from our parents to be used for simchas and special occasions. Since this is made from barley and wheat hops, it would constitute “chametz” which was not sold all the years before we became observant, so (we’re a little afraid to ask) what is the status of all that schnapps we own?
Marc and Stacie
Dear Marc and Stacie,
Congratulations on your new level of observance! I trust you will have a very meaningful Pesach this year given your heightened sensitivity to many of the subtleties heretofore unnoticed, which reveal the true richness and depth of this beautiful holiday experience.
Generally speaking, you are correct in your understanding that leavened items owned by a Jew and not sold to a Gentile for Passover become forbidden for consumption after Pesach. This is actually a rabbinical law, under the category of “k’nas,” or penalty, for the transgression of a Torah law. The Torah prohibits not only the consumption of leavened grain products on Passover, but the ownership of those foodstuffs as well. This applies to all of the five species of grain: wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats. This is outlined in the Torah’s statements: “For a seven-day period you shall eat matzos, but on the previous day you shall nullify the leaven from your homes…For seven days, leaven may not be found in your houses…” (Exodus 12:15, 19). “No leaven of yours shall be seen throughout your boundary for seven days…” (Deuteronomy 16:4).
The simple meaning of these verses is that one must eliminate all leavened products from one’s home completely during Passover, beginning with the day preceding the holiday. The Talmud, however, explains that the prohibition is only upon leavened products, or chametz, owned by a Jew. Chametz owned by a Gentile is permitted to be in the home of a Jew during Pesach, provided it is in a separate area marked as a reminder not to consume of that food. This opens up the possibility of one owning storehouses of leavened products and not having to dispose of them, as one can sell them to a Gentile. The nature of that sale is complicated and not relevant to this discussion, but it is performed by most rabbis for those who request of them to be their messenger to sell their chametz before Pesach.
When one had the ability to sell his or her chametz and did not do so, the penalty of the chametz becoming forbidden as a reprimand for the transgression takes hold. Those unsold products become forbidden for consumption or any other form of benefit.
This, however, applies only when the items not sold constitute a Torah-level transgression of owning chametz. Not all leavened products fall under that category, and some authorities believe that “schnapps” is a rabbinical, not Torah-level, transgression on Pesach. This has to do with the nature of the production of schnapps (chametz that is part of a recipe which is not principally chametz may be only rabbinical in nature — based on the early sage Rabbeinu Tam, who takes the position that in a mixture there is no Torah prohibition of possessing chametz, as well as its mode of consumption, based on Talmudic discussions that get quite complicated). This means that although it should be sold, if it was not, it is not forbidden after Pesach.
Since now you are trying to fulfill these laws, you are revealing that you do not take them lightly. The only reason you did not fulfill this law previously was out of ignorance, not malice. This, coupled with the opinions that schnapps is not a Torah-level transgression, frees you from this penalty. Therefore, you may continue to use your schnapps; it is still considered kosher and will be sold with the rest of your chametz for years to come. L’chayim!

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