Some people like bread. I mean they really like it. They can consume several loaves a day and still want more. Some may even dream about buying all the bread in the country and claiming it for themselves.
Of course, purchasing all of a nation’s bread is just silly talk. No one could do that, could they? No one, that is, except for one man whose annual bread binge-shopping is part of an ancient religious custom.
Passover is one of the holiest festivals in Judaism. It is a week-long annual observance of God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery. The account is told in chapter 12 of Exodus. Things happened so quickly that there wasn’t time for the people to wait for bread to rise, so they were commanded to prepare unleavened bread. For that reason, no leavened bread can be eaten during the Passover celebration.
For some, it isn’t enough to abstain from eating leavened bread. The devout believe they should not own any of it during this time. This requires a top-to-bottom spring housecleaning each year before Passover to get rid of every crumb of “chametz” — any bread-like food that contains leavening agents. The night before Passover, families engage in the “search for chametz.” They use a candle for light and a feather as a mini-broom and search for those last little bread-like items they missed. The practice includes a prayer and a declaration, as summarized by Chabad: “All leaven or anything leavened which is in my possession, which I have neither seen nor removed, and about which I am unaware, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”
Imagine the logistics of faithfully fulfilling the requirements of this declaration. It would be difficult enough for a large family. If you own a restaurant or a bakery, it would require getting rid of a lot of inventory each year. To address this problem, Judaic scholars came up with a solution, permitting the ritual sale of all bread:
“It is permissible to sell chametz that has been stored in designated locations to a non-Jew before the restrictions on chametz that go into effect on the day before Passover. To comply with the stringent requirements of Jewish law, the sale is conducted by contract through an Orthodox rabbi, who is empowered to act as an agent. The sold chametz becomes the non-Jew’s property until after Passover ends, and must be treated accordingly. The chametz should be locked away until after Passover, when the rabbi repurchases it for the community.”— OU Guide to Passover, 2012-5772, page 33
To help facilitate the sale, local rabbis and synagogues will help find a buyer who will take temporary ownership of all leavened bread. In Israel, the government takes care of this for everyone. It sells all of the country’s chametz in one huge transaction.
There has to be someone who agrees to buy up all of the country’s bread. For many years, that man has been Jerusalem hotel executive Hussein Jabar. Each year, on the night before Passover, he negotiates a contract with Israel’s finance minister and chief rabbinate. The contract assigns “all the chametz in the state” and “the leavened products that are on the way to Israel, on planes, on ships” to him. All of this chametz comes at a price. In 2018, it was estimated to be worth $300 million. Jabar only has to make an initial down payment at the time he signs the contract — approximately $14,000. The remaining amount becomes due in eight days when Passover ends.
Despite the transfer of ownership, none of the chametz goes anywhere. It is not a violation of the law to have someone else’s chametz in the house during Passover.
When the balance of the contract comes due, Jabar has the right to take possession of all of the country’s bread by making the final payment of $299,986,000. Not so coincidentally, every year he has failed to make that payment. The contract is thus annulled. Jabar gets his down payment back and the nation’s bread reverts to its original owners.
In 2013, the Jerusalem Post asked him if being part of this do-si-do (sorry again) feels weird to him; Jabar replied by simply saying “No. I understand it very well and if I can help, why not? I’ll help with happiness.”
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