Rabbis are very busy during this time of year. We are involved in preparing our Shabbat Hagadol drasha, shiurim and drashot for Pesach and answering numerous Pesach-related halachic questions. This season is the equivalent of tax season for rabbis. Another thing that we as rabbis do is meet with our congregants who appoint us as their agent to sell their chametz to a non-Jew in the hopes that after Pesach, if the non-Jew is willing, we can repurchase the chametz. I have been wondering about this. With everyone’s time constraints, must we request to meet every congregant who wishes to sell his or her chametz personally? Can’t we use a simpler method of appointing a rabbi as the agent to dispose of the chametz via email or through a phone call?
The entire Orthodox world asked this question a few years ago during the COVID pandemic when we had to socially distance from each other. The advantage of appointing the rabbi as agent in person is that the person appointing the rabbi as agent can do a formal “kinyan,” or a formal act to concretize his intent of appointing the rabbi as his agent, such as picking up the rabbi’s pen or article of clothing. This type of kinyan, which is called a “kinyan sudar,” must be done in person. But how could we do this during the COVID pandemic?
In reality, performing a kinyan to appoint the rabbi to sell chametz is only stringency. After all, the Rambam does not require a kinyan when appointing an agent. However, our minhag is to appoint the rabbi as agent in person with a kinyan. It is done to demonstrate that the person truly agrees to appoint the rabbi as his agent. When it is impossible to do an appointment of agency in person, the Chazon Ish and the Steipler both felt that there was no need for any sort of kinyan. However, Rav Soloveitchik cared about minhagim and he felt that even under these circumstances we should try to observe the minhag, meaning that if someone sends an email to the rabbi with a list of his chametz, it would be appropriate to write, “Rabbi, I appoint you as my agent.” Alternatively, he can just add a line that says that he is doing this with the full understanding of the seriousness of what it means to appoint an agent. In that way, Rav Herschel Schacter argued that we satisfy the minhag even in a situation of social distancing. In the weeks before Pesach 2020, people sold their chametz online or by email using this method.
The following year some people felt comfortable appointing the rabbi as an agent in person and some people were still more cautious and only wanted to do it online. As such, most shuls provided the option to sell chametz online, as well. Our shul also provided an in-person option, but instead of previous years when people randomly showed up at designated hours, we had people sign up for different five-minute slots. That way, I could remain socially distant and masked for those who were comfortable to sell chametz in person and there wasn’t a crowd of people lined up at the same time waiting for me because everyone had a designated time. The truth is that we’ve been continuing this practice of having designated five-minute slots ever since. It turns out that while the online/email method is more time efficient, we have stubbornly held on to the in-person, old-fashioned method.
This doesn’t seem to make much sense, especially during this notoriously busy and hectic time. While we know that the in-person method, although inconvenient, is halachically preferable, I believe, at least for me, there is another reason. You see, I actually like the in-person five-minute meetings for a reason wholly unrelated to Pesach. These meetings afford me an opportunity to catch up with my congregants, to see how they are doing, what they are doing for Pesach. It gives me an opportunity to personally connect. I schmooze with a number of congregants every week during the kiddush, but it’s hard to see everyone and to meet everyone at kiddush, and some people may not attend kiddush after the main minyan. Therefore, it’s nice once in a while, even for five minutes, to catch up and connect. Yes, it’s very time-consuming to do this right before Pesach, but for me, it’s so worth it. If only I can find another excuse to create these meetings another time during the year.
Rabbi Jonathan Muskat is the rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.