I have sold my hametz.
This is a first for me, which makes me laugh because, at my age, you don’t get a lot of firsts anymore.
For those unfamiliar with hametz, it is bread and other leavened products that Jewish law prohibits one from eating or even owning during the eight-day festival of Passover, now less than two weeks away. For believers, this is a serious matter, as the Book of Exodus tells us that eating hametz during Passover will cause one to be cut off from the Jewish community. While many in the modern world may scoff, this actually makes sense to me, as there is something unifying in knowing that fellow Jews all around this planet are going hametz-free. It makes me feel a part of something greater, something really big, and this makes me feel good. It fosters a sense of “belonging.” Either you’re a part of it or you’re not.
The laws, customs and traditions surrounding hametz are quite involved. I’m sure that it would take years of study to understand them fully, particularly as they apply to the complexities of our American culture.
Some things are clear. For example, bread (bagels, tortillas and all that), most baked goods (cakes, pies, cookies, etc.), pasta and most cereal are hametz and forbidden during Passover. Nearly anything that contains wheat or other grains is off limits because a tiny amount of water could begin the leavening process.
If that weren’t enough, Ashkenazic Jews (most American Jews) have a tradition of not eating kitniyot during Passover. This custom is so strong and long-lived that it approaches the force of religious law. What is kitniyot? Essentially, it is rice, corn, beans, peas, peanuts and all their derivatives. This is why Passover is hell on vegans.
Go to your cupboard and pick up the first can of food you see. If you check the ingredients, chances are that corn syrup or another corn product is in there somewhere. This is the reason that nearly anything that comes in a can or a box is, if not outright hametz, then likely at least kitniyot.
So what do observant Jews eat during Passover? Fresh vegetables and fruit, some dairy products, meat, fish, eggs. And lots of matzo, the crisp, unleavened Passover flatbread that is something like a very dry, very plain, giant tasteless cracker.
Well before Passover, we are supposed to start getting rid of all hametz in our possession. I think of it as a form of spring cleaning. Check out all your kitchen cabinets, shelves and drawers for all those misguided purchases from six months ago that you’re never going to eat. If they’re still good, give them to the poor or to another person who will appreciate them. If they’re expired, in the trash they go.
Then there is the matter of crumbs. As anyone who has ever deep cleaned a house knows, they get into everything over the course of a year. Most of us have a tendency to migrate food out of the kitchen: We eat in the living room in front of the TV, we bring snacks into the family room and even into our bedrooms. Chances are, bits of crumbs are to be found nearly everywhere. After we’ve thoroughly vacuumed, swept and mopped, there is a lovely tradition that, right before Passover, we light a candle and walk around the house with it. We use the candle to illuminate every corner where crumbs may be hiding. We carry with us a feather and a wooden spoon for sweeping up even the tiniest bits of hametz crumbs, which we then throw away.
It has been decades now since I went about the house with the spoon, feather and candle. I remember doing this as a child, although without the candle, as my parents rightly failed to trust that their klutzy son wouldn’t accidentally burn down their home.
Plan A for getting rid of hametz has always been to try to stop buying any and to eat up what you have on hand before Passover. Around the time of the holiday of Purim, in March, observant Jews start thinking about this. How can I use those cans of beans that have been sitting around since December? Hmm, stew it is.
But what do you do with what’s left over? As Passover approaches, there’s always some hametz remaining that you forgot about or didn’t manage to eat. You still have half a sack of flour, some boxes of cookies, vinegar, cornstarch, pretzels and a sleeve of saltine crackers. Then there’s that jar of olives and some soy sauce sitting in the back of your refrigerator. You go to Plan B: Give it away, throw it away or sell it.
Sell the odds and ends left over in your kitchen cabinets? You read that right. You can sign a document that gives a rabbi permission to sell your remaining hametz to a non-Jew. This is a legal contract that specifies that the buyer agrees to sell the hametz back to you immediately upon the close of the festival of Passover. This is a wonderful device, as it allows one to be “clean” of hametz for the duration of the holiday and still have those food items back for use after Passover. While some view this as nothing short of fraud and artifice, the true beauty of it lies in the fact that even one who makes every effort to get rid of all hametz and needs nothing back after the holiday will unknowingly possess some impermissible crumbs somewhere. Selling the hametz relieves the observant of worry that they are holding onto something that they shouldn’t be.
Modern technology has proved to be a help in the quest to get rid of one’s hametz. It is now easy to sell your hametz online. Sites such as www.chabad.org allow you to key in information regarding the possible location of hametz (your home and place of employment) and to give a rabbi permission to sell it for you (and guarantee its return to you at the end of Passover). Some sites even send you a receipt with a confirmation number. Generally, the service is free, with a donation to the organization in an amount of one’s choice encouraged.
I wish the internet had been around when I was a child. Back then, you had to sell your hametz the old-fashioned way, by signing a card that contained a brief contractual statement. Of course, a child, lacking legal responsibility, cannot do this. My parents, unfortunately, thought the whole thing was a load of hooey. As they sent me to an Orthodox religious school, this distressed me.
When my mother was growing up, any hametz that was to be saved until after Passover was placed into a single cabinet that was tied shut with a string or rope so that it was not accidentally accessed during Passover. My father grew up in a non-religious household where none of this was an issue.
When I was a child, however, as Passover approached I would attempt to begin discarding cans and boxes of hametz that I knew we wouldn’t use before the holiday. I remember tossing cans of corn syrup laden Hershey’s chocolate syrup in the trash, only to have them later picked out by my parents, who sternly rebuked me for wasting food that they had paid for. I knew the cause was hopeless. The best I could do was to be very careful so that I did not accidentally eat any hametz during Passover. As long as I was living in my parents’ home, there was no way I could get rid of or sell items that were not Kosher for Passover.
We couldn’t go out to eat during Passover, so my mother had to cook every day. Although I didn’t appreciate it then, this was surely a strain on her, as she worked a demanding job. While she cooked Kosher for Passover food (my father, who did not keep kosher, would sneak out to McDonald’s for a hamburger when he couldn’t take it anymore), I had to be careful about my snacks and what I packed for my lunch to take to school. No peanut butter and jelly this week. Hard boiled eggs and matzo it is. Throw an apple or a banana in that brown bag,
The problem was that I was a slob. My bedroom was always a horrible mess, with detritus flung about wide and deep. Once I approached my teenage years, the time of searching for crumbs with a feather and a wooden spoon had long passed.
One time, my parents left a brown paper bag full of peanuts amidst the piles on my bedroom floor so that I would find some hametz to get rid of when I performed my search. By the time I was ten or eleven, however, I didn’t bother with such things anymore. The bag sat there, unnoticed, for days.
To my horror, I finally came across it when Passover was nearly over.