The Torah forbids a Jew, during Pesach, from either owning chometz or deriving benefit from his chometz. However, people often own chometz which they do not want to discard or burn. Over the generations, rabbanim have developed a mechanism – selling chometz to a gentile – to enable Jews to abide by these Torah laws without suffering a monetary loss.
The logic behind selling chometz is that when one sells his chometz to a gentile, he transfers ownership of the chometz and thereby avoids the Torah’s prohibitions. This article discusses the layman’s role in selling his chometz to a gentile.
Originally, Jews destroyed all their chometz before Pesach. But the Middle Ages saw the rise of Jewish-owned bakeries and breweries. As Pesach approached, these businesses were often left with large inventories of chometz so they avoided a financial loss by selling their chometz stock to a gentile and repossessing their chometz after Pesach. Over the following centuries, Jewish householders followed the example of these businessmen. They sold their chometz individually to a gentile. In fact, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, written in the 19th century, explains the procedure for a householder to sell his chometz directly to a gentile. The problem with this approach today is that most people do not know how to arrange a halachically valid transferal of ownership. Therefore, local rabbis arrange the sale of chometz for their communities. However, there is much confusion surrounding this sale.
A common misconception is that the rabbi purchases the community’s chometz and resells it to a gentile. Actually, the rabbi does not purchase anyone’s chometz. He merely acts as an agent to sell the chometz.
One appoints the rabbi as his agent by performing two acts. First, he takes hold of an object (e.g. a pen or handkerchief), which belongs to the rabbi. Though not absolutely required, this act strengthens the relationship between the owner and his agent (the rabbi).
Second, he signs a document which formally appoints the rabbi to both sell the chometz and rent the place where the chometz is situated so that it will be located on the gentile’s “property.” One of the ways a gentile may acquire a Jew’s possessions is known as chotsair. That is, if the chometz resides in the gentile’s property and the Jew so desires, the gentile acquires the chometz.
One does not have to appoint the rabbi in person as his agent to sell chometz. A person may appoint the rabbi by mail, phone, fax, etc. It is very important for people to know that this sale is a formal sale. Once the chometz is sold to the gentile, it is totally owned by the gentile.
The seller must inform the rabbi of the location of the chometz so that he can, in turn, inform the gentile to enable his access to and use of the chometz. In case the seller will not be home for Pessach he should leave the key with a neighbor and record that information on the document that he signs with the rabbi.
Before Pesach, the gentile provides the rabbi with a downpayment for the chometz. The gentile is not required to sell the chometz back to the Jew(s) when Pesach ends. Since the gentile owns the chometz, he is allowed to do with it as he pleases.
If, after Pesach, the gentile chooses to sell the chometz back to the Jews, the rabbi returns his downpayment (with a payment for his “cooperation”). Originally, when people sold their chometz individually, many did not charge the gentile buyers the full market price for their chometz so some gentiles opted to retain ownership after Pesach and the Jews suffered financial losses. Today, the rabbi’s contract with the gentile states that, should the gentile choose to retain ownership of the chometz after the conclusion of Pesach, the chometz will be assessed within a few days and the gentile will be required to pay the assessed value upon presentation of the assessor’s report. The rabbi will credit the downpayment toward the full purchase price. Therefore, the gentile has no incentive to retain ownership at the ! conclusion of Pessach.
In an ordinary year, the rabbi sells the chometz to the gentile during the fifth hour of the morning (i.e. beween 4/12 and 5/12 of the daylight interval) of Erev Pesach, i.e. within the hour following the deadline for eating chometz. However, when Erev Pesach is Shabbos and Pesach starts on Saturday night, we have a problem because 1) we may eat chometz until the end of the fourth hour (4/12 of the daylight interval) on Shabbos Erev Pesach but 2) we may not sell on Shabbos.
A number of solutions have been suggested. The simplest is to retain ownership of the chometz one plans to eat on Shabbos Erev Pesach. When the Jew appoints the rabbi, he must specifically exclude the chometz that he intends to use on Shabbos and specify where it will be. For example, he may write on the contract that he is authorizing the rabbi to sell all his chometz except for “the rolls in the white plastic bag on the porch.” On Shabbos, he will not be permitted to consider any unfinished chometz to be included with what he is selling to the gentile because he explicitly excluded that chometz from the sale. Therefore, if he does not consume all the reserved chometz before the deadline for eating chometz, he must dispose of the remainder properly. There are various methods of destroying chometz on Shabbos. Ask the rabbi which method he prefers. A simple disposal procedure is to crumble the remaining chometz and flush it down the toilet.
After Pesach, before one uses the chometz that was sold, he should check that his rabbi has repurchased it from the gentile.