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Friday, August 1, 2014

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Must we get rid of all our chametz?

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With Pesach just around the corner, most of us are exhausted from the near-constant cleaning. It seems like everywhere we look, there’s some chametz that’s escaped all our previous attempts at removal. But why must we remove all our chametz?

With Pesach just around the corner, most of us are exhausted from the near-constant cleaning. It seems like everywhere we look, there’s some chametz that’s escaped all our previous attempts at removal. But why must we remove all our chametz?

With Pesach just around the corner, most of us are exhausted from the near-constant cleaning. It seems like everywhere we look, there’s some chametz that’s escaped all our previous attempts at removal. But why must we remove all our chametz? Isn’t is enough to just avoid eating it for eight days? How do we get rid of it?

The Mishnah in Masechet Pesachim 21a says that one must destroy all chametz in one’s possession. This is in fulfilment of the Torah commandment that no chametz should be found in your possession over Pesach (Exodus 12:19). The Mishnah continues to say that one may benefit from chametz – feed it to an animal, sell it to a non-Jew, etc. – until Pesach arrives. At that point, we are no longer able to benefit from it. Eating it, selling it or even giving it away is forbidden.

The Talmud explains that on the night preceding Erev Pesach, we must search our homes for chametz and destroy any that we find. As our houses are usually sparkling clean by this time, we place 10 pieces of chametz around the house, in order to fulfil the dictum of the Talmud, and have chametz to find. This, along with any other chametz that we still have, is set aside until the morning of Erev Pesach. At that time, one should burn all of one’s chametz to ensure that no benefit is derived from it in any way. We also make a declaration stating that all chametz we own is null and like the dust of the earth.

While burning our chametz is the accepted custom, according to the strict letter of the law, one can destroy all one’s chametz by any means. The Rama (Orach Chaim 445:1), however, says that burning the chametz is the only legitimate way of destroying it. The sefer Kaf HaChaim says that burning the chametz is preferable, as it is symbolic of destroying the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination). Halachically, though, if one finds chametz in one’s possession during the afternoon of Erev Pesach or on Pesach itself, burning is the only acceptable method of removing it (Mishnah Berurah 445:6).

Nowadays, we have so much chametz in our homes, how could we possibly remove it all? Does this mean we must destroy every crumb? Must we pour out our fancy scotch collections? Fortunately, as time progressed and Jews began stockpiling large amounts of chametz, the poskim (halachic decisors) realized that removing all one’s chametz would not be practical. In order to sidestep the halachah, they instituted the practice of mechirat chametz, whereby all our chametz is sold to a non-Jew. The intricacies of the agreement are relatively simple, but they must be halachically and legally binding. The non-Jew agrees to purchase the chametz for its actual value and gives a small deposit at the time of the transaction. At the end of Pesach, he is legally obliged to take possession of his chametz. If he chooses not to, he may sell the chametz back to us.

Rabbis who sell their congregation’s chametz usually select one non-Jew to buy it all. In this way, they ensure that the full amount the non-Jew must pay after Pesach would be cost-prohibitive, and he’s very likely to sell it back right away. There are some halachic authorities who rule that the non-Jew must actually take possession of the chametz over Pesach (Mishnah Berurah 448:17), but the custom is to be lenient in this regard and merely rent out the space in our homes where the chametz is kept.

May we all have a Chag Kasher v’Samayach and merit a chametz-free yom tov full of happiness and joy.

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