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NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — At 9 a.m. on Wednesday (April 8) morning, Jose Mendez, a non-Jew, became owner of a huge amount of food he’ll never eat.
For the entire length of Passover, which runs April 8-16, Mendez will legally possess hundreds of bags and boxes of bread, pasta and other leavened foods, or chametz, from Jewish homes.
Once Passover ends, ownership will uneventfully revert back to the original owners.
Similar deals are struck — usually for $1 or no money at all — between Jews and non-Jews around the world each Passover, and have been for centuries. The switch in legal possession is seen as helping Jews fulfill the biblical commandment against eating or owning leavened foods during the holiday, without having to dispose of large quantities of forbidden foods and suffer substantial financial loss.
Mendez, a 29-year-old Catholic immigrant from the Dominican Republic who works at the East Brunswick Jewish Center, and Rabbi Aaron Benson signed a form called a shtar mechirat chametz, which means “document for the sale of leavened bread,” that governs the transaction.
The Passover ban on leavened foods stems from the experiences of Hebrew slaves in Egypt who, according to the Book of Exodus, fled the country in such haste 3,200 years ago that their bread did not have time to rise.
Mendez will have the legal right to dine on what he acquires, but practically speaking, he and non-Jewish signatories like him around the world never see the food, which typically stays in the Jews’ homes in basements or plastic bags.
Earlier this week, the rabbi leafed through a thick file with 110 signatures of members who appointed Benson as their agent to sell their food to Mendez.
Like other observant Jews, he said, his congregants have labored to prepare their homes for Passover, throwing away some forbidden foods while placing others in sealed bags in basements or out-of-the-way closets.
“People take the season of Passover seriously,” Benson said, noting that surveys indicate it is the most widely observed Jewish holiday.
“With this contract, not only is leaven hidden from view and out of its place, but you’ve made a legal declaration of your separation from it.
“You’re not supposed to eat it, see it or make any use of it. The box you put it into should be stored somewhere out of the way so you don’t have anything to do with it during the holiday, in part because it’s full of forbidden products, and also because of the sale it belongs to Jose.”
Most of the 110 families signing the contract included donations of $18 — the Hebrew word for 18 means “life,” and Jews consider the number lucky — that will be used to help poor Jews during Passover.
Rabbis of Orthodox and Conservative synagogues are more likely than rabbis in the liberal Reform movement to sign a shtar mechirat chametz, said Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Tenafly, N.J.
While Reform rabbis expect their synagogue members to prepare their homes for Passover, “the Reform movement is not focused on the legal technicalities in the same way as would be the Orthodox and Conservative,” Millstein said. “… Many Reform Jews will say, `I’ll just put the chametz in the basement and close the door. What’s the difference, if I’m going to take it back anyway?”‘
Jews at his synagogue bring leavened foods to the synagogue before the holiday to donate them to a local food pantry, he said.
Mendez, for his part, did not know any of these rules or arrangements existed, anywhere, until he began working at the center two years ago, he said.
He said he is glad to help Jewish people celebrate Passover, and that of course he would never think of actually trying to claim the food signed over to him.
The notion of doing so entertained Mendez, however, and he joked that although he typically eats chicken, rice and beans for dinner, what he will eat for the next eight nights “depends on what they have in their houses.
“I’m going to get my truck ready.”
c. 2009 Religion News Service
(Jeff Diamant writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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