Question: Please explain why we sell our chametz. Wouldn’t it simpler to just discard it before Passover? Why do we go through this charade every year?
Answer: We sell our chametz in order not to violate the precept of “bal yera’eh, bal yi’matze” – which forbids us from seeing or finding chametz on our property (Exodus 12:9 and 13:7). Jews began selling their chametz, instead of discarding it, because in many parts of Europe they did not live on their own property. In fact, in many places they were forbidden to own land. They lived on the lands of the local nobleman, known as the “poretz.”
A Jew often would rent a tavern from his poretz where he would serve liquor. Since most of the liquor was chametz, he had to get rid of most of his assets every Passover. But that would have caused him tremendous financial harship since most liquor requires aging and he would therefore have nothing to sell for many months after Pesach. Any funds acquired through a pre-Pesach sale of the liquor would not have been sufficient to purchase new inventory since no one pays full price for merchandise when it is clear that the seller is desperate to sell.
To help Jews in these situations, poskim, based on Tosefta (Pesachim chap. 2:6, cited by Rosh, Pesachim 2:4) allowed them to sell their chametz for the duration of Pesach to a gentile. Under such a sale, the buyer and seller generally agree on a price, the buyer gives a down payment for the product, and the balance is due at the festival’s conclusion. If the buyer wishes to pay the balance at that time, the seller has no recourse but to hand over the product. But this hardly ever happens. And if it does, the Jew can always use that money to restock.
There is much discussion in regards to giving the buyer complete access to the chametz, which means providing him with a key to the storage area. The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayyim 448:sk12) notes this requirement, which he is rather reluctant to forego. The Aruch Hashulchan (ad loc., sk23), on the other hand, is more lenient.
Sha’are Teshuvah (ad loc sk12) relates an incident that might have been the source for the Aruch Hashulchan’s leniency. He relates that a gentile once bought the chametz liquor of an innkeeper and was given a key for the room where it was stored. And, in fact, he entered the storeroom over Passover and proceeded to drink from the liquor to the point of intoxication. When presented with this problem, the Sha’are Teshuvah suggested that while the gentile was still in his drunken stupor, the innkeeper’s servant should lift the key from him. Upon his awakening, the gentile will simply assume that he lost it. Indeed, that was what transpired.
Few Jews still operate taverns, but just as a tavern owner of old had no other choice but to rely on the sale for the duration of the period of the festival, so too many modern merchants have no choice but to make use of this sale of chametz. Otherwise, they will find themselves at the complete mercy of others. In addition, the rest of us will find it quite difficult to purchase your food for a long period of time following Passover, especially today when Jews not only are the food retailers but are often the wholesalers as well. Thus, what our sages sanctioned and introduced for the benefit of the Jewish people of their time serves us well today too.
A rabbi once asked the gaon Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Responsa Igrot Moshe: Orach Chayyim vol. 4: 95) whether one should be stringent and not buy chametz immediately after Passover, even from a Jew who sold his chametz to a gentile according to all the customary stipulations of a mechirat chametz. Rabbi Feinstein ruled that there is no need for stringency; no Jew, he said, even the least observant, wishes to cause another Jew to transgress. We would add that the mere fact that he bothered to sell his chametz to a gentile serves as proof of his intention.
So while it may seem that selling one’s chametz is just a ceremonial observance, the practical application of this procedure directly affects our lives, even after Passover ends. In this season of redemption may we merit our final deliverance speedily in our days.