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Overview

Judaism has a religious practice called the "sale of chametz". I have questions about the practice's legal implications within the law of the United States (or any other country).

This ritual is observed by Jews during the eight-day holiday of Passover. During this period, Jews refrain from consuming or even owning certain types of food, collectively referred to as chametz. This includes common items like bread, beer, and cereal.

Understanding Chametz and the Ritual

During Passover, religious Jews are prohibited (by the religion) from consuming or even owning chametz, a category of food that includes bread, beer, cereal, and numerous other items. The prohibition on ownership presents a challenge, as completely eliminating chametz from one's possession can be difficult.

To address this, a longstanding tradition known as the "sale of chametz" has emerged. Before Passover begins, a Jewish individual will gather all their chametz and place it in a designated area, often a pantry. They then "sell" the chametz to a non-Jewish neighbor. This practice is based on the religious understanding that there is no issue with chametz being owned by someone who is not Jewish. After the holiday concludes, the Jew will "buy back" the chametz from their neighbor.

It is crucial to emphasize that this sale and subsequent repurchase are considered real transactions within Judaism, not merely symbolic or ritualistic acts. Rabbis assert that these transactions are legally binding according to the secular laws of the country where they take place. The importance of this reality is underscored by stories circulated within the Jewish community, such as anecdotes about non-Jewish neighbors rightfully taking possession of chametz that was sold to them.

In practice, the process is typically handled by the rabbi of a synagogue. The rabbi collects the names of congregants and information about the locations where they store their chametz. This information is incorporated into a contract, which the rabbi then uses to sell the chametz of the entire community to a non-Jewish neighbor. The contract is said to be legally binding, and each congregant authorizes the rabbi to act on their behalf through a separate authorization form.

Legal Questions

Is it a Valid Sale?

Does this ritual constitutes a legitimate sale of the food under the law of the United States or other countries?

Court Considerations

Have US courts or courts in other countries ever examined or ruled on these sales? If so, what was the outcome, and how did they interpret the ritual's legal implications? Any legal precedents or case law on this topic would be fascinating.

Refusal to Sell Back

What happens if the non-Jewish neighbor refuses to sell the chametz back at the end of Passover? Has such a scenario ever occurred, and if so, how was it resolved?


Quotes from an article, describing the process:

“There is no mystery here,” said Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, spiritual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation. “People authorize me or whatever rabbi to act as their agent to sell their chametz. And since a non-Jew may not have the time or the ability to pick up the chametz, they authorize me to rent to the non-Jew the space where the chametz is.”

The non-Jew who is purchasing the chametz, according to the sale contract, has “an absolute right to entry at that time and access to those places.”

The rabbi and the non-Jew enter into a contract in which an estimated value is placed on the chametz, usually $25,000. The non-Jew gives the rabbi a smaller amount — perhaps $5 — as initial consideration for the transaction and the first down payment, “to make it legal and real,” Wasserman said.

In some traditions, more commonly in earlier times, a non-Jewish buyer was given the keys to the Jewish homes where the chametz remained so that he could have actual access to it if he chose. While Wasserman does not collect the house keys of all those whose chametz he is selling, he does give the non-Jew buying the chametz the key to his own house.

Although Wasserman encourages the buyer to pick up the purchased chametz, no one has ever done so, he said.

The contract provides that a couple days after the conclusion of the holiday, the buyer and seller get together with a panel of three experts who adjust the loan to the exact amount of the value of the chametz. But before that happens, the rabbi buys it back.

“I meet him immediately after Pesach, a half-hour after the holiday ends,” Wasserman said. “And we make sure he walks away with a profit.”

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    Are you saying that the selling of chametz is a ritual? Or is it not actually part of the requirement? Why is it difficult to run down stocks before Passover, and give away anything left? Is this just "ritual" aka "practice" just going through the motions, without actually being a challenge? Commented May 1 at 20:29
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    IANAL, but I think the whole thing would be considered a sham transaction under the law. That $5 "downpayment" seems to be the key. It's like selling your home to someone for $1 so it won't be a gift and you don't have to pay gift tax.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 1 at 20:53
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    I don't believe that this question has a good answer. Too much hinges on how a judge or jury in a particular case resolves or understands the intent of the parties, which is highly subjective.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented May 1 at 20:53
  • The whole point of a sale is that the purchaser takes ownership or the item(s) and can do what they want with it. If you also enter into a contract that they'll sell it back to you a couple of weeks later, the whole intent of the sale is moot. It seems more like a collateralized loan, like when you sell something to a pawn shop.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 1 at 20:57
  • I would be very surprised if this has ever been tested in a US court. Despite what the rabbi says, everyone involved knows that this is just a pretend sale to satisfy a religious requirement. Just like there's no scrubbing when we do the "washing of the hands" ritual during the Seder, we just splash a little water.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 1 at 21:01

2 Answers 2

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Yes, it’s a valid sale

Under Jewish law the sale must be unconditional and final. It also must be final and unconditional under local secular law.

Is there a secular precedent?

None that I could find after some admittedly perfunctory searches. However, I would not expect to because Jews are religiously forbidden from contesting possession of the goos. Any Jew who is devout enough to go through with the ritual, is likely devout enough that they would simply hand over the chametz if asked.

Although, they are perfectly within their rights both religiously and legally to pursue the unpaid portion of the debt.

Why would the gentile do that?

Look at the structure of the contract.

They have agreed to pay way more than the goods are worth (I don’t have $25,000 worth of beer and bread in my house, do you?) and they are legally indebted to do so. They are now being offered a fair price for the goods and have their massive debt forgiven - it’s an absolute bargain.

Let’s say they are offered $500, that’s a 10,000% return in 7 days. Or, they can keep the mouldy bread and stale beer and pay the outstanding $24,995.

Also, as a practical matter, these contracts are offered to gentiles trusted by the community.

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Does this ritual constitutes a legitimate sale of the food under the law of the United States or other countries?

Sure, why not? Whatever the motivation of the seller is, religious or not, the transaction/contract itself is pretty mundane.

Have US courts or courts in other countries ever examined or ruled on these sales?

I would be surprised if they did. What is the issue?

What happens if the non-Jewish neighbor refuses to sell the chametz back at the end of Passover?

The neighbor would just remain the legal owner of the food/stuff and eat/use it as they see fit. The religious Jew will have to go grocery shopping.

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