Not every Jewish ritual can be transferred to the medium of the Internet, but even the question raises some interesting points for discussion. With the latest Web technology, we have seen how Jewish life-cycle events can be more inclusive and we have also looked into the legality of convening a minyan (prayer quorum) over the Internet.
With Passover beginning at the end of this week, let us take a look at the question of mechirat chametz (the sale of leavened products) using the Internet. Since the popularity of email messaging began in earnest about twenty years ago, there have been those who have used email to sell their chametz – a legal fiction by which any leavened products that could not be eaten, donated or thrown away are sold by a Jew to a non-Jew (usually through the agency of a rabbi) for the duration of the Passover holiday and then bought back at the holiday’s conclusion.
Like many Jewish rituals, the sale of chametz requires legal documentation to ensure that the transaction is according to Jewish law and custom. In a community without a rabbi or individuals who are knowledgeable about Jewish law, it is difficult to perform such rituals. The advent of the Internet has rendered the physical distance between Jewish communities nonexistent and allowed Jewish people in remote areas to perform Jewish rituals they were once unable to perform. So let us look at the feasibility of using the Internet to sell one’s chametz.
There are several ways to transact the sale of chametz using the Internet. Some may send a signed form attached to an email to an agent (a rabbi or other figure) and others will simply send text in an email message giving permission for the agent to perform the sale. Websites now exist that allow individuals to sell their chametz through an agent without ever seeing or speaking to the agent performing the sale making the seller further removed from the transaction. Does this satisfy the Jewish legal requirements of a valid chametz transaction?
Rabbi Gil Student takes up the question on his Hirhurim Torah Musings blog. He writes:
Technically, one may appoint an agent merely by stating that you are appointing him (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 182:1). However, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Mekhirah 5:12-13) records a custom to solidify an appointment of an agent by making a kinyan sudar, performing a symbolic act of acquisition which demonstrates the transfer of authority. In this way, the Rambam says, you make clear that you truly want to appoint this agent to act on your behalf.
The custom in most places is to make a kinyan from some of these things or the similar and we say he made a kinyan from this person and appointed him an agent… This kinyan that is the custom does not affect anything except making known that he is not saying it as a joke but made a firm decision and afterward said [that he appoints someone as an agent]. Therefore, if he says “I wholeheartedly said and decided this” he does not need anything else.
We normally follow this custom only when appointing a rabbi as an agent to sell chametz, not when otherwise appointing an agent. When the seller signs a document appointing an agent, some consider this kinyan unnecessary (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah 114:8 kuntres acharon), others a stringency (She’eilas Shlomo 4:111), but others — most notably R. Soloveitchik — consider it an established custom (Nefesh Ha-Rav p. 179; see Nitei Gavriel, Hilkhos Pesach, vol. 1 38:1). Presumably, this custom arose because of the danger inherent in the distance of the seller from the actual sale. When it comes to chametz, even if only rabbinically forbidden, we try to strengthen the agency and minimize the risk of the sale becoming a mere ritual.
Since there is no absolute requirement that the appointing of an agent be done through a physical act of kinyan or in the presence of witnesses (private verbal instruction suffices in this case), it is acceptable to perform the sale of chametz through the medium of the Internet. Even a website in which the seller appoints an agent without his knowledge is sufficient. So signing an agreement via the Internet, which is becoming standard practice in many Jewish communities around the world is considered equal to a traditional contract with a signature and is sufficient in the sale of chametz for Passover.