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Jews stay within Passover rules by selling bread, buying back after holiday

PassoverCookingRestaurant and Catering IndustryChristian Orthodoxy

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.

According to Exodus, Jews shall "eat [only] unleavened bread" for seven days each year — and "seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses."

Matzo, on the other hand, is "the poor man's bread," and eating it symbolizes "getting rid of money, possessions, ego — you're starting out like you just got out of Egypt," says Burg.

In time, Jews developed several procedures for ridding themselves of chametz — which also includes medicines, dietary supplements and household cleaners — by the morning of Passover eve, which falls on the 14th day of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish calendar.

One was to consume it all. Another was to incinerate it, a tradition local Jews observe in an annual community ceremony, the Burning of the Bread ritual at Pimlico Race Course.

But those procedures were born long before the days of modern food storage, including freezing and refrigeration, which allow consumers to keep more chametz on hand than they can reasonably be expected to eat or drink — or so much that burning it would constitute a financial hardship.

By the late 18th century, historians say, Jews had entered the liquor trade and so had to store chametz in quantity. Rabbinical scholars then helped these merchants find legitimate spiritual means not to sacrifice the stuff.

"There's a concept in the Babylonian Talmud that says, basically, 'God has concern for the money of his people,'" Shapiro says. "It's an interesting concept. One option for religions is to think, 'Who cares about what happens to your money? Just do what the text says.' But there's an idea in Judaism that the Torah shouldn't lead you to tremendous financial loss."

That was when Jewish elders revived mechiras chametz, which is spelled out in Scripture but had rarely been invoked.

Today, Shapiro and Burg agree, while few Reform or Reconstructionist congregations offer the practice, the vast majority of Orthodox and most Conservative synagogues do.

Jews taking part, in effect, sell the rights to all chametz in their possession — including the cracker crumbs in someone's purse and the cookie bits under the sofa — to a specific non-Jew for the duration of Passover.

They do this by signing a formal contract that grants their rabbi the legal right to sell those foodstuffs on their behalf.

The rabbi, acting as an agent, or shaliach, collects the contracts and, in a formal ceremony the day before Passover, transfers them in a single sale to the buyer.

From that moment until the end of Pesach eight days later, that individual fully and formally owns all the contracted chametz, be it blueberry muffins, Domino's leftovers or bottles of Jack Daniels.

"From a halakhic point of view, it's a binding sale, a transaction that is taken very seriously," says Bergman. "That's why a competent rabbinic figure does it."

Within the tradition, those who sell the banned food rarely remove it from their homes, though most gather up as much as they can find and store it in a remote cupboard or corner of the basement. Sometimes they will go so far as to tape cabinet doors shut to lessen temptation or will post written warnings to prevent guests from stumbling on it.

The buyer — be it a synagogue staffer, a friend of the rabbi or the minister of a nearby church — makes the purchase as an act of goodwill, Burg says, rarely with any intention of claiming it, even though it would be his or her full right to do so.

Burg, who calls his congregation of 500 families "probably less observant" than many Conservative synagogues, usually ends up selling about 20 contracts. Shapiro said he expected to sell more than 150.

By this year's Jewish calendar, the faithful are to have rid themselves of chametz by about 11 a.m. Monday. Passover begins at sundown that day and continues through next Tuesday, when those who have kept kosher throughout will binge in happy "carbfests," as Shapiro's congregant Reed puts it.

Not that she minds the interim. Reed says she relishes the process, from gathering the chametz to signing the contract to carrying out the noticeable, if comparatively minor, eight-day sacrifice.

"We [Jews] were actually slaves," she says. "That's amazing. We really couldn't bake, and we really have had to run. These physical acts are great reminders. They get me ready for the holiday."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter Nayana Davis contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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