Selling chametz at Passover

Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, left, of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation chats with the synagogue's head custodian, William Towah, about the details of the "selling" of chametz (unleavened bread) before Passover. Shapiro is holding some of the contracts signed by synagogue members, and Towah, as a non-Jew, will be "purchasing" the chametz to make the contract binding during the duration of Passover. This ceremony will take place Monday. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / April 8, 2014)

During Passover, the holiday that begins tonight, observant Jews avoid eating leavened bread and all other foods whose ingredients rise during preparation. That means doing without some of the modern diet's tastiest staples, from bagels and pizza to pasta and a tall, cold beer.

So strict is the prohibition on chametz that Jews are barred during Passover even from owning it — a fact that leaves many scrambling to find and purge every bread crumb in the house. There are many ways to dispose of the banned items: Some burn them, some eat them all and some throw them away.

But there's another option, rabbis say — one that means the household mainstays can remain in the home while unleavened matzo takes their place at the dinner table. Jews can simply sell the chametz for the duration of the holiday, then buy it back at the end.

"It's seen as a completely valid transaction within the law," says Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, spiritual leader of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation in Pikesville. "It's a very spiritual matter that comes together with a very technical one. Maybe that's what makes it so interesting."

The fare need never leave the home, and believers can be confident that they are obeying halakha, or Jewish law. The process, known as mechiras chametz, is widely practiced in modern Jewish life, especially in Orthodox and Conservative congregations.

Such arrangements are especially important for food-service businesses, which can use them to recoup their leavened inventory once the holiday is over.

Accents Grill, a kosher restaurant and caterer in Pikesville, removes chametz from its work area more than a month before Passover so staff can begin work on holiday orders. By transferring control of some of its bread, chef and owner Larry Franks said, Accents can safely freeze it for later use.

Once that's done, Franks leaves his ovens burning for an hour at 550 degrees, pours boiling water over work spaces and puts a blowtorch to metal racks. It takes between five and six hours to rid the kitchen of chametz, he said.

"This is something we take very seriously," Franks said. "This is how we can say we're Kosher-certified —not Kosher-style — and stay in business."

Passover is the holiday that commemorates the moment God freed the Jewish people from their more than two centuries of slavery in Egypt, according to the Bible.

The Bible says the Hebrews left so quickly there was no time to allow baked bread to rise — which is why Jews stick during Passover to unleavened bread, or matzo, as a reminder of their liberation.

The observation also means significant changes to the carb-heavy modern diet.

"For eight days, the good stuff is out," jokes Joanne Reed, a member of Shapiro's modern Orthodox congregation in Pikesville.

Moses Montefiore has for years engaged its head custodian, William Towah, to take symbolic possession of its congregants' chametz. Beth Am Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Reservoir Hill, works with caretaker Warren McFarlane.

Each is a beloved figure at his workplace who has been performing the service for more than a decade.

"I do it because I love the synagogue, and I love the congregants, and I enjoy taking care of everything here," says McFarlane, a native of Jamaica and onetime practicing Seventh-Day Adventist.

Rabbi Daniel Burg of Beth Am kiddingly urges McFarlane to knock on sellers' doors and claim a bagel or a drink, but he never has. Nor has Towah during his years of service.

The chametz "belongs to me, but I've never been invited to do that," McFarlane says with a sheepish laugh.

The payments are generally nominal — some as little as a penny.

Shapiro has actually made it a synagogue tradition to ask $18. The figure evokes the number of minutes it takes for flour and water to be cooked before it becomes chametz, according to Jewish tradition.