Editor's Note: The following is adapted from MyJewishLearning.com's weekly "Ask the Expert" columns.
Q: I'm a college student and I want to sell my chametz for Passover. One of my suitemates isn't Jewish. Can I just sell my chametz to her? How do I do it?
— Shayna, College Park
A: As you may know, on Passover, Jewish law prohibits a Jewish person from owning or deriving any benefit from anything made out of five major grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye). Collectively, these grains are known as chametz. For years, people got rid of all their chametz before the holiday began. If this is easy for you to do, by all means, eat or toss your granola bars and crackers, and then you don't have to worry about arranging any sale.
But as early as Mishnaic times in the third century C.E., if a person didn't want to use up or throw out his chametz before Passover, he could sell it to a non-Jew, provided the sale was permanent.
In Poland in the late 16th century, many Jews worked in the liquor industry and used fermented grain to make their product. At Passover, they didn't want to sell their grain permanently to a non-Jew because it was the source of their livelihood. So Rabbi Joel Sirkes, a halachic authority of the time, began allowing people to sell their chametz to non-Jews without removing it from their own homes, and without selling it permanently.
However, Sirkes made sure to stipulate that the sale of the chametz must be a real sale, and not a legal fiction: During Passover, you must really think that the chametz isn't yours, and the non-Jew who buys it must think that he can use it however he wishes.
Today, there are a lot of organizations and synagogues that will sell your chametz for you. Basically, you fill out a form about where your chametz is going to be during Passover, and the shul or group sells it to a non-Jew on your behalf. You can even fill out forms and do it online.
But you asked about doing it yourself, and that's a great idea, so I got in touch with Rabbi Josh Feigelson at Northwestern University. He stressed that what's crucial is that you and your suitemate take the sale seriously: "As both Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch make clear, the most important aspect of these procedures is that one truly believes that one no longer has any ownership of the chametz in one's possession — that the chametzbelongs to someone else."
He also weighed the benefits of going through an institutional sale vs. doing it yourself: "Many halachic authorities would hold that there are specific formal requirements ofkinyan, acquisition, that need to be satisfied, and if one is concerned about these, one should perform an institutional sale. But in an important way, selling chametz to someone you know might actually be preferable to an institutional sale.
"While an institutional sale certainly is halachically valid, selling or giving your chametz to a friend or roommate makes the surrender of property that much more real — provided that your friend or roommate really does feel that the chametz is theirs and that they have full use of it."
How do you actually go about the sale? Copy and paste the text of an online form for selling chametz into a document. It probably has a place for your name, and the name of the rabbi or leader who will be selling the chametz on your behalf. Take out the rabbi's name, and fill in your suitemate's name as the person who will be the owner. Then you will need to negotiate a price. Don't just choose an arbitrary number, like $5. Think about everything you're giving up, and estimate what it is worth.
Your suitemate can give you cash or a check, and then show her where all of yourchametz is, and make it clear that she's really buying it from you and will now be its owner. After the holiday, you can buy back the chametz — without a contract.