January 19, 2020

Chametz: The Good, the Bad and the Holy

Can we claim we don’t want something in our lives when we still own it?

When my wife Rebbitzen Rachel asked me to write something about selling chametz on Passover, I realized that if I don’t try to explain chametz in all it’s perplexing glory and ignominy, I would be letting down those who are determined to understand Passover and Jewish tradition better. So what follows is an exploration of our relationship with chametz – the good, the bad and the Holy.

Is it possible for us to believe our friend Jack who says he has sworn off alcohol for good — but we see two 40oz beers tucked into his back pockets? No, we’ll think Jack is still a lush, not serious about quitting or delusional.

If our friend Jill tells us she has broken it off for good with her boyfriend Jack — but she still has a picture of them together arm in arm on the beach in Malibu on her cell phone, Facebook profile, and car dashboard. Is she over him? Unlikely.

For us to believe that Jack has given up his boozing ways or that Jill has dumped her impaired beau, we are going to require they demonstrate a thorough elimination from their lives of alcohol and mementos of the past relationship. It’s not enough to say a relationship is over. The words ring hollow. You, as their friend, are going to require much more than just a verbal statement. You will want to see real and permanent action.

I hope this analogy of Jack and Jill will be helpful to teach about chametz,  fermented or leavened grain products such as bread made from wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats, that we cut out of our lives on Passover entirely. Hear me out; (and feel free to reassign the gender of the two main characters in the analogy if it bothers you, it makes no difference to the basic point of the story)  For us to truly relinquish something from our lives, we can’t own it, or have it in our possession. We saw this with Jack and Jill and their disastrous relationship.

Integral to the mitzvah to eat matzah on Passover is to refrain from eating chametz for the duration of the holiday. You have to give up one for the other. In order to drive this point home, the Torah requires that we not only stop eating chametz, but that we cannot own or possess any chametz during Passover.

Why is it so critical that we don’t even own or possess chametz on Passover? Isn’t it enough that we just lay-off the beer and bread?

Apparently not.

The Torah teaches in Exodus 12:19, “For seven days no leavened matter shall be found in your houses.” Then a chapter later in Exodus 13:7,  “And no leavened matter shall be seen by you, nor shall any leaven [itself] be seen by you, in all your borders, for seven days.”  We refer to this in rabbinic literature as “bal yera'eh u-val yimatzeh” – “[chametz] may not be seen and not be found.”

As by Rabbi Asher Meir explains: “The properties of being “found” and “seen” are qualified by the phrase “by YOU,” making this prohibition, for all practical purposes, basically one of OWNING chametz. Chametz not belonging to a Jew is NOT part of the prohibition, and chametz which DOES belong to a Jew is subject to the prohibition even when it is not in the Jew's house.”

On Passover, chametz is serious business.

This is why starting a month before Passover, many Jews start a kind of chametz drawdown, the gradual reduction in possession of chametz and the compartmentalization of chametz in the home and workplace leading up to holiday. Then as we prep our homes in the world’s original spring-cleaning, we isolate any remaining chametz to be either eaten, destroyed, or sold before Passover begins.

What is so bad about chametz that we treat it like asbestos? What harm will chametz cause us? Chametz is a physical representation of pride, egotism and arrogance – some of the most destructive personal traits on the planet. Without going into explicit details about how harmful an out-of-control ego can be, consider for a moment that someone who is really full of themselves is easily angered, selfish, giving only in order to get something better in return, and believes that they are the sole reason for their success — not God or anyone else.

The Jewish people’s miraculous journey to freedom is what we celebrate and exalt every year during Passover.  It is not freedom to dominate others with our will, but the freedom to choose a good and holy path, through sublimation of our will to the will and wisdom of our Creator. Freedom isn’t simply “another word for nothing left to lose” but a path made by our choices to invest in creating healthy lives in sync with humanity, Hashem, and the planet.

So in order to renew or commitment to this freedom from the 40’s of pride shoved in our back pockets and the unhealthy relationship with our ego splayed across our screens — we rid our lives of chametz for Passover. It’s not really like an asbestos or lead removal, because when Passover is over, the chametz becomes permitted and important. However, through the removal of chametz from our lives on Passover, we internalize how to become masters over our egos, not slaves to our pride and poor choices.

Which gets me back to what to do with your chametz during Passover.

Whatever we don’t eat in the time leading up to Passover we need to get rid of. However some people have prodigious amounts of expensive chametz in their possession which makes it very unlikely they will actually get rid of it, such as store owners, Jewish-owned corporations, whiskey producers or collectors. The rabbis wanted to ensure that these businesspeople could fulfill the Torah’s mitzvah to rid themselves of chametz, while not taking a huge financial loss in the process.

Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (1560-1640) created a legal procedure called “mechirat chametz” whereby a Jew could rent out the area of their business or home to a non-Jew during Passover in addition to selling them the chametz. The non-Jew becomes the actual owner of the goods and the areas they are stored. The new owner has the right to visit and check in on their chametz during Passover. After Passover, the chametz is sold back to the Jew and the procedure is financially beneficial for both parties. While originally developed for Jewish tavern owners, today many rabbis act as agents for members of their communities and Jewish businesses to sell their chametz on their behalf for Passover. From a few bottles of old scotch to entire warehouses, the mitzvah of ridding our lives of chametz for Passover is truly really helped by this procedure.

You might be asking, “Can’t I just do this myself and sell my booze to my neighbors? Why do I need a rabbi?”. The answer, as is often the case with any contract, in US civil law or Jewish law, it is good to get a pro to help things go smoothly. The sale of chametz is a complex legal arrangement which has many parts that need to be executed correctly and in the right order for it to be effective. If the sale is not done right, the entire procedure may be invalid and you may end up having owned the chametz for Passover. Which would not be so terrible, except for the issue that chametz owned by a Jew over Passover then becomes forever forbidden to use or to benefit from. Why? If there were no penalty for holding on to the chametz, we are afraid that people’s selfishness will get the better of them, and they will forgo the entire process of chametz removal and ego control. Therefor, if you plan on selling chametz you need to find an expert in Jewish law to execute the transaction on your behalf. Not even all orthodox rabbis will do this and leave it to specialists who have advanced knowledge of the procedures.

Certainly for you to experience whether this chametz removal works on spiritual, personal or collective terms or not — in addition to any mitzvot you achieve for participating — you need to try. It’s not enough to just kind of participate. Or to do it “in the spirit” of the law. You wouldn’t let yourself use that logic in other cases; such as preventing a person from consuming something that you know is harmful for them. “It’s OK kids if grandma has a few cookies, her diabetes isn’t that bad.” Really!?

Truly, it’s a challenge. But then again, anything that we do to fundamentally improve our lives and the lives those around us is going to require effort. There is no quick fix to removing this spiritual chametz and becoming a more sensitive and caring person who thinks about others. Rather, it’s a transformation that we undergo, with Passover playing a critical role in the process, to developing a more meaningful and joyous life.

So now you have it, the good, the bad, and the Holy of chametz on Passover.

God bless you and have a wonderful and fulfilling Passover.


Sell your Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is Co-Founder of Pico Shul, Alevy Rabbi-in-Residence at USC Hillel, and Director of Shabbat Tent.