Why Sell Chametz (Leaven)?
I hear a lot of talk about selling one’s chametz to a non-Jew before Passover. Is this a necessary procedure? Aren’t we supposed to be searching for and disposing of our chametz before Passover? And if we do a proper job, what is the point of transacting this sale?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Your point is quite valid. The Torah requires that we dispose of our chametz via one of two methods: (a) seeking out and destroying it, or (b) “annulling” it – making a (sincere) declaration that your chametz is worthless to you, thereby removing it from your possession. The Sages went a step further and obligated us in both procedures – both destroying the chamtez physically and annulling any which might have remained (see Mishnah Berurah 431:2).
Selling chametz is a much later innovation. Of course, if one sells his chametz to a non-Jew before Passover it is no longer in his possession and so he has successfully disposed of his chametz. However, the practice today – of doing a perfunctory mass sale to a non-Jew before Passover with the chametz reverting to the Jews’ possession very shortly after the holiday – is a practice of only the past few hundred years.
I believe part of the basis for this practice is that in the Old World (i.e., Europe) Jews were often barred from owning land and taking part in many professions. One of the few trades open to them (other than money-lending) was operating distilleries – producing and marketing hard liquors. Since such beverages are typically made from grain, the basis of such Jews’ profession was chametz. And since it was not realistic for such people to dispose of their entire stock every year, it became customary to arrange a yearly sale to a non-Jew.
Now such a sale would be a serious business arrangement. The non-Jew would actually own the Jew’s tavern in a legally binding sale. The Jew would hand over the keys; the entire stock would be at the non-Jew’s disposal. And, equally significant, whether or not the non-Jew would be willing to sell back the business to the Jew after Passover was entirely at his discretion.
Nowadays, such a sale has become routine. It is also a very good idea. We own so many products of complex composition – lotions, creams, medications, some having a grain-alcohol base, others containing “natural” ingredients such as beer or oatmeal. (Which types of such “leaven” are considered edible and off limits for use and ownership is beyond the scope of this discussion.) Many Jews also pride themselves on possessing an extensive bar filled with a large variety of grain-based liquors.
In addition, selling to a non-Jew serves as a final back-up for the chametz that we intended to dispose of. Just in case we didn’t find all the chametz in our possession – although we do annul anything we missed – the sale will remove any such chametz from our possession altogether. This is particularly true today when our houses are typically much larger than those of our ancestors.
Although the sale to a non-Jew has become routine nowadays, it must not be seen as a "ritual." It is a 100% legally binding sale. It must be done by a competent rabbi who is familiar with the legal process (both in Jewish and secular law). Many rabbis also take various measures to ensure the sale is taken seriously – such as requiring that all known chametz sold be placed in a designated location, or that the homeowner provide the keys to the house or room containing his chametz to the rabbi to (possibly) be handed over to the buyer.
Finally, many rabbis do not sell “real” chametz – such as bread or crackers, since we try to avoid relying on this legal “loophole” for such an outright possession of chametz. It should be reserved for medications or foods in which chametz is a very minor ingredient.
It should also be noted that the chametz sold does not automatically revert to the original owner as soon as Passover ends. A sale which is set to automatically terminate is of questionable validity. What the rabbi actually does is to return to the non-Jewish purchaser of the chametz after Passover in order to buy it back from him (or to cancel the sale if the non-Jew is unable to pay the full price by that time). Time must be allotted after Passover to allow this to occur.
If there is no competent rabbi in your neighborhood to arrange the sale of chametz, there are many on-line services you can use. See for example, Tvunah.org.