Passover is fast approaching, and as Jews scramble to rid their homes and offices of chametz, or “leaven,” even the most traditional among them know that it is not practical or economical to remove every last crumb.
Fortunately, there is 2,000-year-old tradition of getting rid of the chametz that one does not want to destroy or eat prior to the commencement of the holiday: the sale of those foods to a non-Jew.
Congregations around town provide paper and online forms that allow Jews to engage a rabbi to sell their chametz on their behalf. But what exactly happens when those forms are signed? And are these real sales?
“There is no mystery here,” said Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, spiritual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation. “People authorize me or whatever rabbi to act as their agent to sell their chametz. And since a non-Jew may not have the time or the ability to pick up the chametz, they authorize me to rent to the non-Jew the space where the chametz is.”
The non-Jew who is purchasing the chametz, according to the sale contract, has “an absolute right to entry at that time and access to those places.”
The rabbi and the non-Jew enter into a contract in which an estimated value is placed on the chametz, usually $25,000. The non-Jew gives the rabbi a smaller amount — perhaps $5 — as initial consideration for the transaction and the first down payment, “to make it legal and real,” Wasserman said.
“In Jewish law, what we Americans call a down payment works a little bit differently,” Wasserman explained. “In Jewish law, the down payment is as if [the buyer] paid the entire amount, and the rest is a loan.”
In some traditions, more commonly in earlier times, a non-Jewish buyer was given the keys to the Jewish homes where the chametz remained so that he could have actual access to it if he chose. While Wasserman does not collect the house keys of all those whose chametz he is selling, he does give the non-Jew buying the chametz the key to his own house.
Although Wasserman encourages the buyer to pick up the purchased chametz, no one has ever done so, he said.
For the last few years, several local congregations have joined together in the sale of chametz, including Shaare Torah, Poale Zedeck, Young Israel and Gemilas Chesed in White Oak, Wasserman said.
“We get together and run it as one and rotate who runs the show,” he said.
Generally speaking, the chametz is sold to a non-Jew who is connected to one of the congregations, such as a maintenance worker.
The contract provides that a couple days after the conclusion of the holiday, the buyer and seller get together with a panel of three experts who adjust the loan to the exact amount of the value of the chametz. But before that happens, the rabbi buys it back.
“I meet him immediately after Pesach, a half-hour after the holiday ends,” Wasserman said. “And we make sure he walks away with a profit.”
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Pittsburgh, is responsible for selling the chametz of all those Jews who fill out forms provided by any of the local Chabad rabbis.
Rosenfeld takes the names of about 2,000 people who have asked Chabad to sell their chametz and puts them in an envelope that he delivers to Kenneth Brown, a maintenance worker for Chabad, just prior to the start of the holiday. Rosenfeld puts together a contract of sale explaining what the chametz is and all it includes.
The contract is in Hebrew and translated into English. Rosenfeld reads the contract to Brown “so he knows what it entails.”
The two men shake hands, and Brown gives Rosenfeld a small amount of cash, usually $5 or $10, as the down payment. In the contract it is provided that if Brown wants to sell it back at the conclusion of the holiday, Rosenfeld will consider buying it back.
“If not, he owes the whole amount,” Rosenfeld said.
Like Wasserman, Rosenfeld gives the buyer of the chametz the key to his house, but he also gives Brown the keys to a few other homes as well, “in case he wants the chametz.”
After the holiday, Rosenfeld buys the chametz back from Brown for a greater amount than the down payment, usually between $30 and $50.
“Most rabbis don’t do the sale themselves,” Rosenfeld said. “They pass it off to other rabbis. I get names and addresses from other rabbis around Pittsburgh, and from North Carolina, South Carolina and New Jersey.”
Although Rosenfeld has not ever had a chametz buyer actually come to collect the chametz, he did hear of a case a few years ago in Israel in which an Arab who had purchased chametz showed up one day during the holiday with a truck wanting to pick it up.
For the Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom, the chametz sale contract differs somewhat from that used by the Orthodox congregations in that it provides for a temporary sale that begins at a set time and ends at a set time. The “sale resolves itself,” according to the terms of the contract, and does not necessitate the rabbi meeting with the non-Jewish buyer to finalize things at the end of the holiday, said Rabbi Seth Adelson, spiritual leader of Beth Shalom. Adelson does not give the buyer the keys to his home or to the homes of his congregants whom he represents.
“But if the buyer asks for it, I will find him a key,” Adelson said.
The sale of the chametz is an important part of Passover observance, Adelson said.
“If you don’t sell it, you are violating the law,” he said, noting that it is imperative for those keeping chametz in their home to put it in a location that is not easily accessed so there is no risk of accidentally using it. The sale, he said, “is an attempt to add another fence.”
Ridding oneself of chametz, Adelson said, is much more than disposing of the five species of prohibited grains: wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye.
“It’s not merely about eliminating these things from our lives,” he said. “But it’s a time of spiritual cleansing. It is effectively an opportunity to be introspective. It’s not just spring cleaning in our home, but spiritually cleaning our hearts and minds.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.