Passover is just one week away and many people have been scrubbing and cleaning out their pantries of the last granule of chametz food not kosher for Passover they can find. But for those few that escape the watchful eye of the Pesach cleaners, Jews turn to an old tradition of selling any missed remnants.
Up to the morning of the first seder, people can sign contracts with their local rabbis giving them the authority to sell to a non-Jew any chametz still in their possession.
Selling one’s chametz is a long-standing principle, said Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.
"It recognizes that we want to fulfill this mitzvah of getting rid of chametz in our possession," he said. "It is a mechanism our rabbis instituted to help us fulfill this very significant mitzvah."
Weiner said that he facilitates the sale of his congregants’ chametz to one of the center’s non-Jewish employees. Through either a short ceremony or a contract, congregants authorize him to act on their behalves.
"I become the agent for them for the sale of their chametz to a non-Jew who buys up the chametz," he said.
It is forbidden for Jews to own any chametz during Pesach, and those who still have chametz in their possession may not benefit from it for the rest of the year. So even if no one touches the unopened box of Cheerios in the cupboard, it becomes forbidden fruit after the holiday if it legally remained under that person’s ownership.
The practice dates back as far as talmudic times, said Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County. As Jews rose above the poverty level, he said, and had more goods to keep track of, getting rid of one’s chametz became more difficult.
"It became a practical problem for the vast majority of Jews," he said. "Nowadays, we encourage everybody to sell their chametz for Pesach. Even if a person feels they got rid of all their chametz, it could be they forgot something in the back of a closet somewhere."
Selling one’s chametz allows Jews to solve the difficult problem of making sure every corner of one’s home is chametz-free, Weiner said. "It’s a very problematic aspect of Jewish law, and the best way to observe the mitzvah is not to sell the chametz but to get rid of every speck of chametz, which most people find impossible," he said. "We have this mechanism to help us solve this otherwise intractable problem."
After Pesach, the rabbi buys back the chametz from the non-Jew at a slight markup as compensation for the time spent on the matter. The contract itself is binding not only according to Jewish law, but secular law as well. If it weren’t binding, then it would not be valid, Simon said.
"It has to be a legally binding sale," he said. "The non-Jew can walk away with this and take all the chametz with him at the end of the day. It’s a legal reality."
This process has actually caused problems in the past during times of anti-Semitism, Simon added. There were occasions when the non-Jew refused to sell back the chametz.
"There’s a mark-up so he’s happy to sell it back," Simon said. "Usually the person on the other end [now] of the deal would rather take the cash at the end of the deal than your extra Cheerios."
When selling the chametz, Simon said he figures out a value on all of it and the buyer gives a 10 percent down payment. At the end of Pesach, as most people run out to the pizza shops, Simon said he’s running to his chametz dealer to buy everything back, returning the dealer’s purchase price plus 10 percent to ‘0 percent of the goods’ value.
The contracts themselves were created from templates used by the rabbis’ respective movements. While there have been minor changes through the years, the basic contract has remained the same over the centuries, Simon said. There are different contracts for Jewish-owned grocery stores, which are also required to rid themselves of chametz, that are more complex but have the same outcome.
"Those contracts have evolved as businesses have evolved," Simon said. "The average contract is still the same."