Questions: Please explain the concept of selling one’s chametz. Wouldn’t it be simpler just to dispose of all of one’s chametz prior to Pesach? Why go through this charade every year?
(We again interrupt our series on “A Sabbath Desecrator” to answer this timely question. We will continue the series next week.)
Answer: The entire concept of mechirat chametz – of selling one’s chametz to a gentile for Pesach – was introduced so that one shouldn’t violate the precept of “bal ye’ra’eh…u’bal yi’matze – [chametz] should not be seen…and should not be found” (Exodus 13:7, supra 12:19).
You ask: Wouldn’t it be easier to just discard all of one’s chametz before Passover? The answer is that selling chametz began as a solution to greater dilemma. In Europe, Jews were not landed, i.e., they did not live on their own property. In fact, in most instances they were forbidden to own land. They typically lived on the lands of the local nobleman, known as the “poretz.” It was common for a Jew to rent a tavern from his poretz and serve liquor therein.
Since most of the liquor was chametz, the Jew would have been required to dispose of all his liquor before Passover. Since most liquor requires aging, he would have found himself in great financial hardship at the conclusion of the festival without any ready product on hand to sell the next day. Any funds acquired through a pre-Pesach sale of the liquor would not have been sufficient to purchase new inventory since such a sale would probably result in distress prices.
Thus, the poskim, based on Tosefta (Pesachim chap. 2:6, cited by Rosh, Pesachim 2:4), resolved to allow one to sell one’s chametz to a gentile 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. Indeed, if the buyer wishes to pay the balance at the stipulated date, the seller has no recourse but to hand over the product. Yet, this has rarely ever happened.
There is much discussion regarding the necessity of giving the buyer complete access to the chametz, i.e., providing him the key to the area where the chametz is stored. The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayim 448: 12) notes this requirement, which he is rather reluctant to forego. The Aruch Hashulchan (ad loc. sk23), on the other hand, is more lenient in this matter.
The Sha’are Teshuvah (ad loc. sk12) relates an incident which might have been the source for the Aruch Hashulchan’s leniency. He recounts that a gentile once bought the liquor of an innkeeper and was given the key to the storeroom. During Pesach he entered the room and proceeded to drink to the point of intoxication. When presented with this problem, the Sha’are Teshuvah suggested that while the gentile was 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 the key. Indeed, that was what transpired.
Now, you must realize that just as one who owned a tavern or inn of old had no choice but to rely on selling his chametz, the same is true of merchants today. If they had to sell their chametz without the option of getting it back, they would find themselves at the mercy others who would likely pay very low prices for the food. In addition, after Passover, very little chametz food would be available, and consumers would have to wait a while until they could buy such basic necessities like cereal for children. This is especially true today when Jews are often not only the food retailers but often the wholesalers as well. What our sages sanctioned, and introduced for the benefit of the Jewish people of their time, serves us well in our time as well.
A rabbi once asked Rav Moshe Feinstein whether one should be stringent and not buy chametz immediately after Passover, even from a Jew who sold his chametz to a gentile. Rav Feinstein (Responsa Igrot Moshe: Orach Chayim vol. 4:95) responded that there is no need to act stringently since surely every Jew, even the least observant, does not wish to cause another Jew to transgress. We must add that the mere fact that he went to the bother of selling his chametz to a gentile should serve as proof of his intention.