Ian Zlotnik did something last week that he had never done before: He sold his chametz.

Zlotnik, a busy young professional and New Jersey transplant to Houston, was at the Chabad House helping set up for YJP Houston’s monthly Shabbat dinner for young professionals when Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, director of Chabad of Uptown in Houston, told him that one is permitted to sell their chametz—foods made with grains that have risen, such as bread, pasta and cereal—to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday. The rabbi suggested that they take a few minutes to sell his chametz, and Zlotnik agreed.

“I was surprised how easy it was,” says the 24-year-old. “It took about five minutes; it was [mostly] filling out my address. It was really straightforward.”

It is forbidden to have chametz in one’s possession or even to own it during Passover, and the practice of selling the chametz to a non-Jew before Passover with the reasonable expectation of getting it back after the holiday is discussed in a Tosefta (addition) to the Mishna, tractate Pesachim.

While the tradition of selling one’s chametz to a non-Jew has been around for at least that long, it accelerated in the Middle Ages among businessmen who traded in leavened products and could not afford to destroy all their stocks each year. Eventually, as people had more chametz stored and it became increasingly difficult to simply get rid of it all, the practice became popular among individuals.

While authorizing a rabbi to make the sale is straightforward, the terms of the contract are very complex, and should only done through a rabbi, experts say. Hence, it became the practice of rabbinic scholars in each community to take responsibility for selling the chametz of the Jews in their community to a non-Jew.

As the numbers of Jews who learn about their heritage continues to grow around the world, especially in places with little or no traditional Jewish observance, the time-honored tradition of selling one’s chametz before Passover is growing as well, with thousands of people selling their chametz for the first time this year. The sale is done through a formal contract, with the rabbi acting as the intermediary. All the seller needs to do is fill out the appropriate sales form and be sure that the not-for-Passover food is stored away by the appropriate time of the day before Passover.

But as straightforward as the paperwork is, circumstances can keep some people from meeting with their local rabbi to sell their chametz before the start of Passover, which begins this year on the evening of Friday, April 19. To ensure that everyone, regardless of their situation or geography, is able to participate in this tradition, Chabad.org offers an online “Sell Your Chametz” service. More than 90,000 people are expected to use the online form again this year, with most of those sales occurring in the days leading up to the start of Passover. It is recommended that the form be given to the rabbi with enough time for him to conduct the transaction, usually at least 24 hours before the start of the holiday.

To ensure that the sale and the reasonably expected buy-back of chametz occurs at the proper times, Chabad.org has created 11 regional zones with a designated rabbi in each area who is charged with processing all the online requests for sales in their region. Based on the individual’s location during the holiday, the service provides users with the correct time to burn their chametz and stop eating it on erev Pesach, as well as provides candle-lighting times for the holiday.

The service is provided in eight languages—Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, German, Hebrew and English.

While the ease of selling chametz online is appealing, the preferred method for taking part in this tradition is to sell it in person by visiting your local rabbi, as Zlotnik did in Houston. Sometimes, though, that isn’t possible, such as for those living in remote areas where there are no rabbis or when it is not otherwise possible to arrange for the sale in person.

This was the case for one woman who was unable to sell her chametz through a local rabbi and sold it online through Chabad.org. “I am, unfortunately, bedridden at the moment,” she wrote. “My back is injured again, much to my dismay. So, it means so much to me to be able to reach out to you online for genuine caring and true assistance from genuine people.”

For more information and background on the sale of chametz, visit our Chametz FAQ page here.

To sell chametz online, visit our online Sell Your Chametz page here.