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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

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.

Niddah: Why

Why is a couple prohibited from marital relations during the wife's menstruation? Doesn't this reduce the ability of a man and woman to connect through the deeper aspects of marriage? And isn't this whole thing discriminatory toward women?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Actually, the laws of family purity help increase intimacy between husband and wife, and it has nothing to do with "double standards," as we shall explain.

There is a spiritual concept called "tuma." Unfortunately mistranslated as "dirty," tuma is not a description of inferiority, impurity or uncleanliness. Rather, tuma is caused by the "loss of human life." For example, the dead body of a human being contains the greatest degree of tuma.

Similarly, after having marital relations, men are in a state of tuma, because of the loss of the "building blocks" of life within them (Leviticus 15:16). Women incur this state of tuma when they menstruate, because of the loss of potential life within them (Leviticus 15:19). The Talmud calls this a "whisper of death."

Intimacy in Judaism has a very specific meaning. When a man and woman express love for one another in a proper physical relationship, in which they view themselves as two halves of a whole, then a deep emotional-spiritual bond is formed. But if the physical relationship remains rooted primarily on the physical, that focus on self-gratification does not allow for the couple to become whole together.

The period of separation during menstruation enables the couple to achieve true love. This is because a strong yearning between the husband and wife begins to build. This separation also forces a verbal intimacy, since they are not allowed to touch each other. Real intimacy requires the mind and emotions. This painful longing for each other changes the relationship for the better, and when they resume the physical side it already includes the deep emotional-spiritual component.

Shabbat Candles & Havdalah on Chanukah

During the Shabbat of Chanukah, which is lit first - the Menorah or the Shabbat candles?

And then on Saturday night, which do we do first - the Menorah or the Havdalah service?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

On Friday afternoon during Chanukah, we first light the Chanukah candles. The reason is because if we would light Shabbat candles first, this would signify the onset of Shabbat - and we are not allowed to light Chanukah candles on Shabbat. (Code of Jewish Law O.C. 679:1)

But following Shabbat on Saturday night, there are different opinions as to which should be done first. On one hand, it makes sense to say Havdallah first, because that signifies the end of Shabbat and now gives permissibility to lighting Chanukah candles. Also, there is the Talmudic principle of "Tadir U'sheino Tadir, Tadir Kodem" - the activity that is performed more often should be performed first (Zevachim 89a).

Furthermore, it would seem a contradiction to be lighting the Chanukah candles - an activity which is forbidden on Shabbat - when we still have yet to officially usher out the Shabbat!

On the other hand, there is another rule which states "Afukei Yoma Me'acharinan" - we seek to prolong our observance of Shabbat (Rashbam - Pesachim 102b). Another reason offered for prioritizing Chanukah is due to its role in publicizing the miracle.

This is a situation of competing halachic principles. Since both approaches are valid, everyone may do according to his custom.

(sources: Meiri - Shabbat 23; Taz - O.C. 681:1; Mishnah Berurah 681:3)