Usually we get rid of all chametz and don’t sell it for Pesach. This year, however, my friend brought me a large bottle of real vanilla from America (which is expensive and hard to come by in Israel, where we live). I don’t know how much it cost here, I estimate it to be worth about 100 shekels in America, in Israel it might cost 200 shekels if available at all. It would be difficult for us to replace it. Is there room here to be lenient to sell it?
Yes, in a case of financial loss it would be permitted to sell chametz. The stringency not to sell chametz applies to products that contain real chametz and not just uncertified products. Pure vanilla may in fact not be chametz at all in which case it may certainly be sold with other non certified products.
Poskim clearly regarded the leniency of selling chametz as applying to extraneous circumstances alone. The Eliyah Rabba (448:7) writes that under ordinary circumstances one may not rely on this leniency, even making a distinction between whisky (which may be sold) and beer (which may not be sold). The reason for this distinction is that in contrast with whisky, it is relatively easy to control the amount of beer in one’s possession.
Shut Ori Veyish’i (121) writes that in his day sale of beer was permitted, because of the large amounts of beer that pubs work with. Once again, he is careful to avoid a blanket leniency, and writes that his ruling is only on account of “grave financial loss among Israel.”
Because of the reservations mentioned by authorities, several poskim have written that one should not rely on the sale of chametz for actual chametz (see next week’s article for which items should be sold). The Vilna Gaon (quoted in Maaseh Rav) went even further, and refrained after Pesach from purchasing items of chametz that were sold over Pesach. [See however below, where we explain why today’s sale might be superior to that of previous generations. It is therefore hard to determine how the Vilna Gaon and others would have related to it.]
Yet, in spite of these reservations, it has become a widespread custom to perform achametz sale in advance of Pesach. Some rely on the sale for actual chametz, selling even items such as whisky and beer. Other utilize the sale solely for items where there is only a slight chance that they contain chametz. Still others do so only ‘for safety’s sake,’ meaning to ensure that if some chametz was missed, it should be included in the sale (Takanas Mechiras Chametz, Chap. 1, note 17, writes that this is a worthy practice).