A Brief History of Selling Chametz

As we prepare for Pesach this week many Jews around the world will fill out a mechirat chametz, “Sale of Chametz”, form which will presumably absolve them of the responsibility of destroying some of the chametz in their possession. The idea is that a person can set aside the chametz that they wish to keep and “sell” it to a gentile. After Pesach, this chametz is “purchased” back and the Jew can use the chametz once more. The purpose is to avoid transgressing the mitzvahs of bal yera’eh (Exodus 13:7), that no chametz “be seen” in one’s possession, and bal yimatzeh (Exodus 12:19), that no chametz “be found” in one’s possession. By hiding and temporarily “selling” it, the chametz is no longer technically in the Jew’s possession and cannot be seen. Where did this interesting innovation come from?

The “Sale of Chametz” Text of the Noda B’Yehuda (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, 1713-1793)

To understand mechirat chametz, we need to go back nearly two millennia to the Mishnah. It is there that we first read about selling chametz: “As long as one is permitted to eat [chametz], one may also feed it to his domesticated animals, to non-domesticated animals, and to birds; and one may sell it to a gentile; and it is permitted to derive benefit from it…” (Pesachim 2:1) As long as it isn’t yet the holiday of Pesach and one is still allowed to eat chametz, one can also feed it to animals, sell it, or derive any kind of benefit from it. Once Pesach has begun, all of these things are forbidden. The Talmud (Pesachim 21a) comes in and asks what was the point of mentioning that one is allowed to sell it? Obviously, if one is allowed to eat chametz they can sell it, too!

The answer is that the Mishnah is distinguishing between two opinions regarding selling chametz, that of Beit Hillel and that of Beit Shammai. As is well-known, Beit Shammai was usually a lot more stringent, and the same is true regarding this issue. Beit Shammai held that you could not sell chametz to a gentile right before Pesach if the gentile would eat the chametz on Pesach! You could only sell the chametz if you knew for sure that the gentile would consume it all before Pesach. In other words, a Jew cannot be the agent of someone eating chametz on Pesach, even if that someone is a gentile! Beit Hillel was more lenient and allowed selling the chametz any time before Pesach, for once it is sold to the gentile it isn’t our concern what he might do with it. So, the Mishnah had to mention that as long as one can eat chametz they can sell chametz to clarify that the halakhah goes with Beit Hillel, as is usually the case.

At this point, we have not yet seen anything resembling the mechirat chametz procedure of today. (In fact, what we do see is that Beit Shammai would have been vehemently opposed to mechirat chametz!) We must now turn to a Tosefta, which is an additional teaching from Mishnaic times. In Tosefta Pesachim 2:6 we read: “A Jew and a gentile who are on a ship, and the Jew has chametz in his possession—he can sell it to the gentile or give it to him as a gift, and then he can reacquire it after Pesach, but only if he had given it away completely.” In this unique case, a Jew is on a long maritime journey and stuck on a ship over the course of Pesach. To simply destroy the chametz or throw it overboard would be illogical and risky, since a ship at sea has a limited supply of food and the journey ahead might last many weeks more. So, the Jew can give or sell the chametz to a gentile co-passenger and then, if the chametz has not been consumed by the gentile over Pesach, the Jew can buy it back afterwards. The Tosefta makes clear that the Jew has to give it over completely (gemurah), with no conditions. The gentile is free to do with it whatever he wishes, and may consume all of it before the Jew has a chance to get it back. Based on this, we can understand the halakhah as later codified by the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 448:3):

…if [the chametz] was given or sold to a gentile before Pesach to be kept outside of the Jew’s home—even if the Jew sold it to the gentile and knows that [the gentile] will not touch it at all, but will rather save it for him until after Pesach and will give it back to him—it is allowed but only if he gave it away completely with no conditions…

Here we see that the chametz must be sold completely and transferred out of the Jew’s home into the possession of the gentile. The sale must be final and unconditional. The Shulchan Arukh adds that to give it away on the condition that it will be returned is not allowed (one is allowed to suggest to the gentile that he might want to purchase it back after, if it is available). In the more extensive Beit Yosef (the “full version” of the Shulchan Arukh), he states that if there is any condition to the sale, the sale is invalid and the person has transgressed the two mitzvahs of bal yera’eh and bal yimatzeh. He also says that the chametz must be out of the Jew’s home (michutz labayit). If not done properly and according to these halakhot, the Beit Yosef says that a person has engaged in “the greatest deception”. One can already see how today’s procedure of mechirat chametz—which does have conditions, is not truly a final sale (but only a deposit) and does not leave the Jew’s home at all—is hugely problematic! How did it come about?

Polish Beer

The first authority to permit selling chametz and keeping it on one’s property is the Bach (Rabbi Yoel Sirkis, 1561-1640). He carefully explains why it is that he permitted it. Living in Poland, at that time one of the main businesses among Jews there (who were heavily restricted regarding what jobs they could hold) was beermaking. Beer is fermented grain and certified chametz. A Jewish beermaker could not possibly get rid of all their chametz and their beermaking equipment without massive financial losses, nor could all the equipment and stores and barrels be transferred out of the Jew’s property. So, the Bach permitted selling chametz but keeping it on one’s property. Still, it was a complete sale with no other conditions, and it was done individually between business owners and gentiles, with proper sums of money actually exchanging hands between them.

It is only in the past two centuries or so that mechirat chametz as we know it developed, with a rabbi or other agent “selling” on behalf of many Jews, if not the entire community or city, for a symbolic and miniscule deposit. And it is even more recently that anyone can now sell their chametz—whether they have a chametz-related business or not, whether they will suffer financial losses or not, and whether it is even necessary or not. All of this is hugely worrisome. The Vilna Gaon would not participate in such sales, and instructed that “sold” chametz not be consumed (Ma’aseh Rav 180-181). Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach permitted the sale, but himself would not consume “sold” chametz. Rav Moshe Feinstein also permitted it, but personally suggested not selling actual chametz, only things of questionable chametz status. Similarly, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik advised not to sell actual chametz, but only goods that might have chametz mixed into them (which, according to some, is only rabbinically prohibited).

Today, selling chametz is halakhically permitted and has become widely accepted. If one must do so, they certainly can. Some rabbis might insist on it because they know most of their community is secular and will not properly eliminate chametz, so the sale will mitigate the sin—and that’s a great point. However, for the deeply-committed, Torah-observant, and God-loving Jews, when considering how strict we are about Pesach, and how much time and effort we put into cleaning and getting ready, does it make sense to then keep chametz at home and “sell” it? Is it worth taking the risk of possibly transgressing some of the biggest mitzvahs of the Torah? Or taking part in what might be, even if there is only a slight chance, a “great deception”? It is undeniably far better to truly get rid of all the chametz in one’s possession and on one’s property as the Torah instructs, and fulfil the mitzvot properly without any doubts. So here are some helpful tips:

First of all, there are many things that are not actually chametz and need not be sold or destroyed. This includes anything in the kitniyot category, as well as nearly all raw flours and raw grains (which have not been processed, mixed with water, or fermented in some way). For instance, one can keep bags of raw rice or beans and not have to worry about it being chametz or needing to be “sold”. The same is true for all kinds of non-kosher-for-Pesach-certified goods such as cans of tuna, soft drinks, potato chips, etc. These things are not certified for Pesach so we cannot eat them on the holiday, but they shouldn’t have any chametz in theory (check the list of ingredients just to make sure) and can simply be put away. The same is true for most gluten-free products, which are generally chametz-free. When it comes to things like cookies, pasta, and burekas, these are certainly chametz and must be eliminated. If one has whole packages left, it is best to donate them to a local food bank. Thereby, one does two mitzvahs at once: helping the needy, and getting rid of chametz! The trickiest category is that of alcoholic beverages.

Alcohol comes from fermentation, however the alcohol compound itself is not chametz (otherwise we would not be allowed to drink four cups of wine, of course). The issue is with alcohol that was derived from chametz. Beer is totally chametz since it is made from fermented grains, and the final product is full of that grain. Beer must be consumed or destroyed before Pesach. If you have extras, give them away to a non-Jewish neighbour or co-worker. (I just gave my last few bottles to the carpet cleaner, and he was ecstatic!)

Whiskey and vodka are a little more complex. They are made from fermented grains, but then go through a distillation process that is highly refined. Only alcohol gets through, and no grain is left. This is why whiskey and vodka are completely gluten-free (while beer is not). In the case of whiskey, the flavour comes afterwards from the barrels. So, whiskey and vodka do come from fermented grains, but do not actually have fermented grains in them. They are therefore of questionable chametz status. Though they certainly cannot be consumed on Pesach, it is unlikely that they must be destroyed or “sold”.

Besides, even if a small microscopic trace of a grain was left in the vodka or whiskey, we make a critical declaration before Pesach that any errant microscopic chametz we might have is null and void anyway, and considered like dust. The reality is that there can always be microscopic chametz particle contamination (including in wine, and even with matzah, hence the stringency of gebrokts!) so the declaration we make covers that miniscule chance. (Personally, I aim to have all the bottles of vodka and whiskey in my possession consumed before Pesach, and whatever sealed bottles I have left I return to the local liquor store, which takes them back even without a receipt, in exchange for store credit.) In these ways, one can avoid a mechirat chametz entirely and fulfil the Torah’s mitzvot to the highest degree.

Wish everyone a chag Pesach kasher v’sameach!

For more on what’s really chametz and what isn’t, see ‘The Science of Chametz’.