How Mechirat Chametz, Selling Your Chametz, Works
It may come as a surprise to many that the sale of chametz, one of Pesach’s traditional rituals, is actually a relatively recent innovation. In order to avoid the prohibition of Jewish ownership during the holiday, the Mishna proposes the solution of selling chametz to a non-Jew. However, this selling process was very different from the one we practice today. Unlike our current practice, the Mishna refers to a final and irrevocable sale through which the original owner transfers his chametz into the hands of the non-Jew and then abandons any connection to it.
During the middle ages, Eastern European land laws forbade Jewish participation in the agricultural economies of many of the countries in which they resided. Consequently, many Jews chose such independent trades as the operation of taverns. These taverns manufactured and sold grain-based liquor. With their livelihoods invested in liquor inventories, Pesach threatened to wipe out the source of income of Jewish tavern keepers.
Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (Bach, 1560-1640) addressed this problem by permitting the sale of liquor without removing it from its premises, accomplished by renting the storage space to the non-Jew along with the sale of the chametz. Even though the sale would be reversed after Pesach, the Bach held that it was nonetheless an effective and legal sale.
Some have argued that the process of selling chametz should only be done in a situation that involves a great loss, for example when a business would be forced to discard its chametz inventory. Chametz for personal use, they say, should be completely discarded in observance of the mitzvah of “tashbitu se’or mibateichem.”
The Rabbi as Agent
Contrary to a widespread misconception, Rabbis do not buy the chametz. The individual participating in the sale appoints his Rabbi as an agent to sell his chametz to a non-Jew on Erev Pesach. The signature on the contract and the exchange of an object (e.g., a handkerchief) in a procedure known as a kinyan chalifin, formalizes the power of attorney.
To overcome any possible doubts associated with the validity of the transaction, different methods of halachic acquisition are also employed:
1) Kinyan Kesef: An actual transfer of money in the form of a down payment is tendered by the purchasing non-Jew.
2) Kinyan Shtar: The transaction is recorded in a legal contract signed by the parties.
3) Kinyan Chalifin: An exchange (barter) of property, whereby the non-Jew hands over an object of his, upon which the chametz is transferred into his ownership.
4) Kinyan Chatzer: The non-Jew acquires real estate from the Jew. By dint of the real estate acquisition, the chametz transfers as well.
5) Tekiat Kaf and Kinyan Odita: A handshake and verbal affirmation signaling the completion of the transaction.
Due to these intricacies, the sale often takes place in the presence of a Bet Din of three or more rabbanim.
Many Rabbis request that their congregants list all the chametz they have, where it is stored, and its approximate total value. Others limit their congregations to selling only mixtures of chametz (e.g., dressings with flour, mayonnaise with vinegar that may be chametz, as well as liquors), and not pure chametz such as breads, pastas, cakes, and cereals. All of this is done in order to stress the serious nature of the process.
To accommodate individuals who plan to be away the entire Yom Tov, some Rabbis either hold a key to their home during the holiday, or the individual designates someone else to hold the key, to insure the non-Jewish purchaser access to his chametz.
The transaction takes place on Erev Pesach, which falls this year on Monday morning, March 29, 2010, prior to the conclusion of the fifth halachic hour of the day.
Selling Chametz in Different Time Zones
This process works smoothly when each person and their chametz remain in the same time zone. However, what happens if the chametz is in America, but its initial owner will be in Israel for Pesach? When the Rabbi is selling the chametz in the US time zone, Yom Tov will have already begun in Israel, past the time that one is permitted to have chametz in one’s possession. If a person travels before Pesach, the Rabbis arrange an early sale, to take effect Sunday evening, March 28, 2010. Even with Israel being six or seven hours ahead, this is still prior to the prohibition of owning chametz. (For those who plan to be away the entire Pesach and want to avoid having to search for the chametz, selling the chametz at this time may obviate the necessity for searching for the chametz. Consult your Rabbi for details.)
What about the final day of Pesach, when the Yom Tov concludes at 8:25 p.m. in the New York area and the person visiting California is still in the final day of Pesach? In this instance, the Rabbi stipulates at the time of the sale that he will only reacquire the chametz after Pesach ends for that individual.