A virtual sale meets the virtual marketplace

baguetteI was half listening to the announcements at the end of the Saturday morning service when something the rabbi was saying broke through the noise in my head. I was pretty sure I heard him announce that we could sell our chametz online.

Immediately, I pictured a sort of eBay marketplace, where I could auction off boxes of Ronzoni penne, Cheerios and unopened bags of chickpeas after frenzied bidding to a winner offering big bucks for the privilege. Of course, since I’m not supposed to receive benefit from my chametz, perhaps I’d have to donate the funds to some worthy charity, but hey, so much the better. Doing good and ridding my kitchen of the things I’m not supposed to eat during Pesach all at the same time? Does it get any better?

Of course, there is a bit of a gap between my Technicolor daydream of selling my chametz prior to Passover, and what the rabbi was actually describing. I think what he had in mind was something a tad more subdued and ultimately, a little more traditional. Basically he was just giving us a virtual option, for what in essence is a longstanding virtual activity.

Every year in the lead up to Passover, a form arrives in the mail and in the copy of the synagogue bulletin, lest you miss the other, to sell that which is forbidden to eat during the Passover holiday. For not only are we forbidden to eat it, but also we should not even have it in our possession.

Long ago, Jews simply destroyed all of their chametz prior to the holiday. I’ve always suspected that this was because in days long gone, before preservatives and refrigerators and big Subzero freezers in our garages, people probably didn’t have huge surpluses around of things you cannot eat during the eight days of Pesach.

A friend likes to retell the story of visiting Ethiopian orphans in Israel several years ago. When told they needed to prepare for the upcoming Passover holiday, the children took all of their meager possessions out of their dormitory rooms and into the hall. When they were asked why they did this, they explained that in their village in Ethiopia, they burned all their possessions before Pesach — their clay bowls, the spoons, and the way she understood it, even their huts, along with the food that is forbidden. It gives you a bit of a window into how we might have operated in more nomadic and rural times, when our possessions were few. I also wonder if a more scorched earth approach to Passover cleaning would make it more appealing. For those of us who turn over our kitchens readying for the holiday, the weeks between Purim and Passover are ones of deep-seated anxiety coupled with procrastination. Taking a match to it all has a certain appeal, albeit one of which town codes and insurance companies are not likely to approve.

At some point in our history, as we became middle class burghers owning businesses like bakeries and breweries, we began to hang onto our chametz. For those people in particular, destroying it all would lead to financial disaster. Not only were they out of business during the holiday — No beer! No bread! Eight days! — but also they would have to replace all the goods they had destroyed beforehand to get back up and running afterward.

Rather than doom people to financial ruin, or create onerous hardship for those less fortunate, the rabbis concocted a formula to avoid this. Instead of demanding that we rid ourselves of all prohibited foods, they came up with the idea that we should transfer ownership of the goods from erev Pesach until after sundown at the end of the holiday.

Bingo! Enlist a nearby friendly priest or business compatriot to take over possession for the eight-day festival, and you’ve got yourself a deal that in logic rivals the best that offshore bank accounts and tax dodges have to offer.

In the past, when I’ve received my chametz form in the mail, I usually tack it on the kitchen bulletin board and then promptly forget about it. Sometime later, as the window on Passover preparations narrow and the approaching holiday appears like an oncoming 18-wheeler barreling straight toward me in a head-on collision, I remember that I’ve got to get the form over to the shul. I hastily fill it out for my home address for my family and add work addresses for both myself and for my husband. (Shh. Don’t tell him. To him, it’s all magical thinking.)

My synagogue has always arranged to sell the chametz to a nearby church. I’ve often wondered if the pastor thinks we are collectively crazy, although I suspect he is well versed enough in theology to know we all have our peccadillos. I’ve also thought it a bit, well, unsettling that the banned goods I’ve hidden in my garage or basement don’t belong to me during Passover, but to some church down the road. What if one of the congregants comes knocking on the door to claim that box of panko one day?

All of which brings me back to the virtual aspect of this year’s sale. While I’m not young enough to be considered an early-adopter, I’m a pretty enthusiastic user of technology. I buy my dresses for dinner dances on the aforementioned auction house, eBay. I taught myself to read Megillah Esther from a “tutor” on kolel.org; I wish everyone a Shabbat shalom on Facebook before signing off; and my last column for this newspaper revolved around a shoe return to Zappos.com.

Online chametz sales? No issue! Talk about procrastinating. I can wait until the last minute to turn in the form, and do it while still dressed in my pajamas and fuzzy slippers, without ever leaving my chair.

The American Heritage Dictionary I received for my bat mitzvah — long before the era of iPhones and online avatars — defines the word virtual as “existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form or name.” And selling your chametz, while real in one sense, feels very virtual in most.

I can think of no better case of form following function than for us to take our selling of it online. For it is there, in the ether of electronic signals, pixels and IP addresses, that an imaginative centuries-old solution meets the means that give it perhaps its truest expression.


Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think. I hope you'll share my work.