Circumvention

Every year at Passover time, Jews clean their homes, remove all bread products, and get ready for a week of matzah. In our family we begin shortly after Purim with the so-called “Great Chametz Eat-Down”, which involves avoiding buying any new pasta, pretzels, etc. so that by the time Passover comes we have very little chametz left in our house.

Despite our best efforts, however, there is always some non-Kosher for Passover food we cannot entirely consume before the holiday, whether it be condiments or beer and liquor. The solution in Judaism is to sell this chametz to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday and then buy it back afterward. Rabbis all over the world facilitate this sale for their congregations. I sold our chametz to Lawrence Township council member Mike Powers.

The selling of chametz is called in Jewish law a ha’arama, a circumvention of a prohibition. The Torah does not say that one can sell one’s chametz, it instructs us to remove the bread products and destroy them. Selling chametz allows us to get around this commandment by transferring ownership of these products.

Some people are uncomfortable with the concept of ha’arama because it seems to be an attempt to get around a clear divine commandment. While selling chametz follows the letter of the law, does it fulfill the spirit of the law? The ancient rabbis grappled with this question and felt that while a ha’arama might not be ideal, it was necessary when circumstances change.

Like other circumventions in Jewish law, the selling of chametz was instituted when life evolved. During Biblical times, the Israelites led a simplistic existence when commerce was limited and food storage virtually non-existent. Eventually, Jews communities became more sophisticated as people began to keep chametz for longer periods of time either for sale or home use.

The rabbis were sensitive to the major financial loss that destroying chametz could involve, so they created the ability to sell these products to non-Jews, but they always meant for this ha’arama to be used only as plan B. If you can eat all of your chametz before Passover, or give it away, that is the best option. One should use the selling option for an expensive scotch collection, not the box of pasta you bought the day before the holiday.

Each year in Israel the Chief Rabbi sells all the chametz owned by the state to a non-Jewish resident of the country. There is also a law on the books that prohibits any bread from being sold at stores throughout Israel, although enforcement seems to be virtually non-existent. The chair of the left-wing Meretz party intends to introduce a repeal of the Chametz Law in the next Knesset.

Her objection is that the law makes no sense in a democratic country where people have the freedom to practice or not practice religion as they see fit. The irony of the Chametz Law is that it unites all sectors of Israel society, if unwittingly. Most secular Israelis circumvent it all the time and buy bread just as religious Jews circumvent Biblical law to sell their bread to their non-Jewish neighbors.

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