I have a recurring Passover fantasy. One day, in the middle of the eight-day holiday, there will be a knock at my door. I’ll open it to a grizzled old man who will say, “Give me the chametz!”
Jews are forbidden to own chametz (rhymes with “DUMB bits” in Yiddish and “Rockettes” in Hebrew) during Passover, based on the Biblical commandment found in the Book of Exodus 12:15: Seven days shall you eat flatbread. The very first day you shall expunge leaven from your houses, for whosoever eats leavened bread, that person shall be cut off from Israel from the first day to the seventh day. (The holiday is eight days everywhere except Israel.)
Not all grains can be leavened, and so only certain grains are regarded as chametz. In Biblical times, chametz meant several varieties of wheat and barley. Later, the rabbis decided to include spelt, rye and oats. These five grains will rise when they come in contact with a leavening agent, such as yeast or baking powder, or even water, which often contains the spores of wild yeast.
Other grains, such as rice and corn, will rot, rather than rise, when they come in contact with water.Coincidentally, the grains regarded as chametz are those that contain gluten.
Getting rid of chametz
In the weeks leading up to the holiday we clean and scrub, ridding our dwellings of every crumb of chametz. I described this in my Feed the Spirit Passover column last year. But what does not owning any chametz mean, practically speaking?
Well, starting about two months before the holiday we stop buying foods containing chametz except for the absolute necessities. We try to use up open packages of flour, bread, cookies, crackers and cereal that we have in our pantries, and throw out what we can’t eat. Some folks throw away all opened packages, even foods that would otherwise be acceptable for Passover. So it’s a balancing act of trying to eat up all the stuff you don’t want to keep over Passover while having enough food to take you right up to the start of the holiday.
But what to do with unopened and sealed packages of cereal, pasta and mixes that include any of the chametz grains in their ingredients? Or the very expensive stuff, like a half-bottle of single-malt Scotch, which is made from grain considered chametz and thus taboo for Passover? For many of us, especially those of us who regularly stock up when we have coupons or the stores have good sales, it would be financially difficult to throw everything away or even to donate it all to a food pantry.
The solution? Sell it!
The solution is to sell the chametz to a non-Jew. That way we can keep it in our homes, stashed away somewhere out of sight, but for the duration of the holiday, we don’t legally own it and we cannot use it.
Most congregational rabbis act as agents, selling the chametz on behalf of members. My rabbi does this, and also sells any chametz owned by the congregation itself – like the huge boxes of frozen cookies we use for our post-Sabbath-service receptions. He sells it all to our non-Jewish custodian.
In Israel, since 1997 a Muslim Israeli, Jaaber Hussein, has been buying chametz owned by the government and state institutions – prisons, hospitals, the armed forces – in a deal brokered by the chief rabbis. The sale has an estimated value of $150 million. Hussein, who works at a Jerusalem hotel, gives the government representative a check for NIS 100,000 (about $25,500) as payment for the chametz.
After the holiday, the rabbis buy the chametz back.
Some people of means have been known to “sell” their entire house for the duration of Passover. Then they simply lock the door and decamp to a kosher-for-Passover resort or cruise ship without even having to do the insane cleanup.
The document for selling chametz is legally binding, which is why I started wondering what would happen if someone actually tried to enforce it.
My rabbi, Bob Gamer, says he’s never heard of a buyer actually trying to lay claim to purchased chametz, as in my fantasy.
“If they did they would have to arrange a time to come and get it and then pay the fair market value of whatever they take,” he said. “If you have an $80 bottle of Scotch, then they have to pay the balance. The contract is a down payment, with the remainder due if the person collects the items.”
Some organizations will handle the proxy sale online. Here’s a link to one of them.
Here’s a nice, easy Passover recipe for pineapple kugel (pudding) from my machatenista Joy Gardin – that’s a good Yiddish word for which there is no English equivalent; it means my child’s mother-in-law. You can serve it as a side dish or as a dessert, and it’s one of those Passover dishes that we like to say is “good enough to eat all year” because it doesn’t taste like matzoh. Because it contains no matzoh, it’s also a good dish for anyone avoiding gluten.