As mentioned in the introduction to this volume, the Alter Rebbe first composed Hilchos Pesach together with Hilchos Tzitzis as his initial presentation of sections of the Shulchan Aruch after being charged with that responsibility by his mentor, the Maggid of Mezritch, in 5530-1 (1770).1 The Alter Rebbe revised portions of that text and made additions to it throughout his life.

During the years 5550-5558 (1790-1798), the Alter Rebbe composed several halachic works, including Hilchos Talmud Torah, Hilchos Ribis, Luach Birkas HaNehenin,2 and the portion of his Shulchan Aruch entitled Choshen Mishpat. During these years, he also composed Hilchos Mechiras Chametz and had the text circulated among the chassidim so that they could compose bills of sale based on it as Pesach approached each year.

In 5563 (1803), the Alter Rebbe printed his Siddur and included Hilchos Mechiras Chametz in it. When the Alter Rebbe’s sons prepared his Shulchan Aruch for publication after his passing in 5574 (1814), Hilchos Pesach was the first portion to be printed. The Alter Rebbe’s sons included Hilchos Mechiras Chametz in that first edition, and it has similarly been included in all subsequent printings of that text.

The first mention of the sale of chametz to a non-Jew is found in the Tosefta (Pesachim 2:6), which is cited by Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 2:2). This Tosefta speaks of a Jew on a sea-journey on the day before Pesach, who has chametz with him which he must remove from his possession before the sixth hour on the day before Pesach.

This situation is only mentioned in the Tosefta, and not in the Gemara or Mishnah, because in the Talmudic era (and for many centuries afterwards), it was not common for ordinary people or business owners to possess significant amounts of chametz on the day before Pesach that they would desire to own after Pesach. Hence, instead of selling or giving their chametz to a non-Jew, Jews would simply remove and obliterate all the chametz from their domain before the holiday. In later eras, it became more common for Jews, both private individuals and business owners, to own large amounts of chametz that they did not wish to destroy before the holiday. One of the first responsa dealing with this issue is that of Terumas HaDeshen (responsum 120), authored by Rav Yisrael Isserlin in Austria-Hungary [5150 (1390) - 5220 (1460)]. The practice of making a “gentlemen’s agreement” regarding chametz is mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch of Rav Yosef Caro (Orach Chayim 448:3). This ruling serves as the source for the Alter Rebbe’s statements in section 448 of his Shulchan Aruch.

By the Alter Rebbe’s era, many Jews had become proprietors of inns or companies that manufactured alcoholic beverages, and a mere gentlemen’s agreement would not have been sufficient to protect the owner’s assets. Therefore, more formal business arrangements were necessary. In his Shulchan Aruch, the Alter Rebbe discussed the sale of chametz on the basis of the existing halachic literature. In the section to follow, he provides practical, applicable directives for homeowners and businessmen in his time. See also Likkutei Sichos (Vol. 16, p. 130), which cites sources that explain why such a sale is permitted even though it appears to be a mere legal fiction.