Question: Why do we sell our chametz. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just dispose of it? Why go through this charade every year?
Answer: We sell our chametz so as not to not violate the precept of “bal yera’eh…u’bal yima’tze – [chametz] should not be seen… and should not be found” (Exodus 13:7, supra 12:19). This custom – to sell one’s chametz as opposed to discarding it – began in Europe where Jews were generally barred from owning land. Jews, therefore, typically lived on lands of the local nobleman, known as the “poretz,” and many of them would rent a tavern from the poretz where they would serve liquor.
Most liquor, though, is chametz, and if a Jew had to rid his tavern of all liquor before Pesach, he would have found himself in great financial hardship at the conclusion of the festival without anything on hand to sell the next day (since liquor generally requires aging). Any funds acquired through a pre-Pesach sale of the liquor would not be sufficient to purchase new inventory since such a sale would probably result in distress prices. Poskim, therefore, based on Tosefta (Pesachim 2:6, cited by Rosh, Pesachim 2:4), permitted Jews to sell their chametz for the duration of Pesach.
Generally, the buyer and seller agree on a price, and the buyer gives a down payment for the product with the balance due at the festival’s conclusion. If the buyer wishes to pay the balance due at the stipulated date, the seller has no legal recourse but to hand over the product. (This rarely happens, though.)
There is much discussion on the need to give the buyer access to the chametz, i.e., to give him a key to the area containing the chametz. The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayim 448:12) maintains that a person should provide a key while the Aruch Hashulchan (ad loc., sk 23) is more lenient.
Sha’are Teshuvah (ad loc., sk 12) relates an incident that might be the source of the Aruch Hashulchan’s leniency. He recounts that a gentile once bought the liquor of an innkeeper and was given a key to the storeroom. Over Pesach this gentile entered the storeroom and proceeded to get drunk. (Sha’are Teshuvah suggests that someone in such a situation should lift the key from the gentile. Upon awakening, he will simply assume that he lost it.)
Relatively few Jews run taverns today, but any merchant of food would also be at the mercy of others if he couldn’t sell his chametz. In addition, he would find it quite difficult to purchase food for a long time after Pesach, especially today when Jews not only are food retailers but often are wholesalers as well. So selling our chametz – which was introduced many centuries ago for the benefit of Jews living at that time – serves us well too.
The gaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:95) was once asked by a rabbi if he should be stringent and not buy chametz immediately after Pesach from a Jew who sold his chametz to a gentile. Rabbi Feinstein responded that there is no need to be stringent for surely every Jew, even the least observant, does not wish to cause another Jew to sin. We should add that the fact that he bothered selling his chametz to a gentile serves as proof of his mindset.
In this season of redemption, may we merit the final redemption, speedily in our days.