Monday, April 02, 2012

Some Thoughts on Selling Hametz

In addition to forbidding the consumption of hametz (leavened products) on Passover, the Torah emphatically prohibits us from owning any hametz during the holiday as well. Indeed, the Torah commands us to rid ourselves of hametz on the eve of Passover, which is done through ביטול חמץ (verbal nullification of hametz) and through ביעור חמץ (physical elimination of hametz from one's domain). Any hametz that remains in the possession of a Jew during Passover becomes forbidden to eat or enjoy even after the holiday.

Now, it is certainly true that selling your hametz qualifies as completely removing it from your domain. Once you sell an item to someone else, it is no longer yours. It permanently belongs to the buyer.

Nowadays, however, hametz is "sold" in a legally fictitious manner. A representative of a large number of Jews in the community "sells" their hametz to a non-Jew using various legal instruments that would normally be fully valid methods of transferring ownership. Typically, the non-Jew leaves a "deposit" with the representative and stipulates the following condition: He agrees that he will deliver payment in the amount of the full value of the hametz by the night after Passover, and that if he does not do so, the sale will be cancelled and the hametz will revert back to the Jewish owners who are presently "selling" it.

The hametz, meanwhile, remains securely locked in the pantries of the "sellers". Bear in mind that the "buyer" doesn't know any of the sellers, has no idea where they live, has no access to their residences and - were he somehow to gain entry to their homes and attempt to claim his hametz - no chance of actually being able to eat it during Passover! As soon as the holiday is over, the non-Jew predictably fails to deliver the outstanding balance he promised, and the sale is cancelled.

From a strictly legalistic standpoint, this might be a valid arrangement, (although, to be honest, some authorities do question its efficacy). During the course of the holiday, the argument can be made that the hametz is, technically speaking, officially owned by the gentile. And we can understand why the rabbis initially promoted this ceremonial sale. Jews in the Old Country were poor and could not afford to destroy what hametz they possessed. Moreover, many of them had expensive liquor or were in the liquor business and would stand to absorb major losses were they forced to discard their stock of hametz.

Let's face it though - selling hametz MAY "work" on a technical level, but in terms of the spirit of the law it fails miserably. Psychologically, we never fully disconnect from our hametz, knowing that it is safe and sound in our cabinets. We never experience the absolute dissociation from hametz we were meant to experience on Passover. "Sure, we sold our hametz" we say - wink wink - as we anxiously await reopening those cabinets at nightfall when the holiday draws to a close and we can once again partake of the hametz we possessed all along...

Today, thank G-D, most of us are in a far better position than our ancestors and can afford to dispose of our hametz in accordance with the original law of the Torah. We don't need to rely on a form of subterfuge that satisfies most (NOT ALL) legal opinions while undermining the spirit and confounding the purpose of the Torah's instructions.

In summary, if you really, truly cannot afford to dispose of all of your hametz, then by all means, do not hesitate to sell it through your rabbi.

But if you won't be seriously financially harmed by doing the mitzvah, then be true to the spirit and the letter of the law, and remove all hametz from your domain for Passover!


joshwaxman said...

I'm strongly in favor of selling chametz, but always put off a post detailing why...


Anonymous said...

What about people in the food business, who have outstanding stock of chametz?

Aharon F said...

If you have large amounts of Chametz, do what is done by many in Israel, Really sell it, put it in a warehouse storage where the person you sell it to has access, whatver amount of Hametz he goes through in the 8 day period he goes through. Everything else reverts back to the owner after the 8 day lease is over. Small loss. In Israel they does this under the assumption that the goy wont actually take the hametz but sometimes they do, which is good, it's theirs!

sports handicapping software said...

every time I read your articles I was shocked to learn about their customs as thanks for writing

joshwaxman said...

Bear in mind that the "buyer" doesn't know any of the sellers, has no idea where they live, has no access to their residences and - were he somehow to gain entry to their homes and attempt to claim his hametz - no chance of actually being able to eat it during Passover!

really? when i sell the chametz through my rabbi, i am supposed to carefully specify on paper my address and where the chametz is found to be found in my in which shelf, and an estimate of the value of the chametz. the non-jew presumably has access to that paper, or if not, can surely get access through the rabbi. were he to show up at my door, i would let him in and let him have and eat the chametz. otherwise it would be acknowledging that the sale was invalid, and i would violate a deoraysa. indeed, i am not in town, I have to specify where the key is to be found, to allow access.

i'll forward you an email with the chametz authorization form for the shul.

is this more of a mechira gemura, then?

more here, of course.