Warren Buffett Participates in a Passover Ritual

29 Mar 2012


Mr. Buffett receives a kinyan from Rabbi Gross.

From left: Beth Cohen, Rabbi Gross,Rabbi Kripke, Mr. Buffett, and Yossie Stern (Rabbi Kripke’s son-in-law)

“It is permissible to sell chametz that has been stored in designated locations to a non-Jew before the restrictions on chametz that go into effect on the day before Passover. To comply with the stringent requirements of Jewish law, the sale is conducted by contract through an Orthodox rabbi, who is empowered to act as an agent. The sold chametz becomes the non-Jew’s property until after Passover ends, and must be treated accordingly. The chametz should be locked away until after Passover, when the rabbi repurchases it for the community.”

From the OU Guide to Passover, 2012-5772, page 33

Every year, in the frenzied hours leading up to the start of the Passover festival, rabbis become businessmen and take charge of selling chametz (leaven) from their congregations to a non-Jew, as described above. The purchaser is an individual who is trusted by the rabbis to treat the goods with respect and then to sell them back after the holiday.

Who wouldn’t trust Warren Buffett, the world’s third richest man? Rabbi Jonathan Gross of the OU member Beth Israel Synagogue in Omaha, where Mr. Buffett resides, certainly did and arranged for the sale of chametz this year to the man whose name is synonymous with wise investing, a modest lifestyle, and who already has major investments in Israel.

In his blog, “Rabbi in the Middle of America,” Rabbi Gross details his experiences.

“‘There are Jews in Nebraska?’ Rabbi Gross writes. “That is the first question that every Jew from Omaha is asked when they travel outside of Omaha. The second question is always, ‘Do you know Warren Buffett?’”

“What I did know,” says Rabbi Gross, “is that Warren Buffett is modest and conservative and he has a tremendous impact on the Omaha community. His impact helps make Omaha a good place to live, as it reflects down to earth American values.”

And so, a bit chagrined that he didn’t know him, Rabbi Gross, acting on a suggestion from his uncle Mark Honigsfeld, wrote the great investor a letter. “Dear Mr. Buffett, I have a business deal that you may be interested in.” He explained the law behind the sale of chametz to a non-Jew, selling low and buying back high. “A great short term investment. I figured Warren Buffett should be able to relate to that,” Rabbi Gross says.

He did indeed, responding within two days, and inviting Rabbi Gross to visit him in his office to make the sale and providing a choice of three afternoons.

“I freaked out!!” Rabbi Gross reports. “On the one hand, I was excited to finally be able to meet the richest man in the world (actually third richest) and to actually do business with him. On the other hand, the sale of chametz is done the day before Pesach in the morning. After much thought, I decided that the best thing to do was to accept the earliest date possible – bird in hand – and figure out how to make a sale of chametz six weeks early.”

He sought the advice of Rabbi Mendel Senderovic, dean of the Milwaukee Kollel and a renowned posek (halachic decisor). It became clear to the two rabbis that the usual manner of sale would be impossible. “Selling chametz early is problematic,” Rabbi Gross explains, because it would not include any leaven acquired by Jews in the period before Passover. “Selling chametz is a serious thing and I did not want to play around with it, even for Warren Buffett.”

After some serious pondering, Rabbi Gross came up with the idea of selling Mr. Buffett some chametz and then asking him to donate it to a food bank. With this in mind, and accompanied by Rabbi Myer Kripke, who became a philanthropist from his early investment with Berkshire Hathaway, Mr. Buffett’s company, the Rabbi went to see the legend. He was also accompanied by his former Executive Director, Beth Cohen –who has participated in the OU’s annual Executive Directors Conferences — and now works for the Omaha Federation, together with Rabbi Kripke’s son-in-law, Yossi Stern, and Beth Israel member Gary Javitch as photographer.

In order to make the sale tangible, Rabbi Gross purchased some chametz that he would give him as part of a sale, a challah from the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home. In a handshake transaction, Mr. Buffett had purchased the largest furniture store in the world from Rose Blumkin — a business the Jewish immigrant started in her garage. Rabbi Gross also brought along some fine scotch as an example of expensive chametz.

“So together our group went to visit Warren Buffett,” Rabbi Gross reports. He noted the sign above his secretary’s window with a quote from The Wizard of Oz: “Nobody gets in to see the wizard. Not nobody. Not no how.”

That rule did not apply to Rabbi Gross’ small delegation. Upon meeting Mr. Buffett the rabbi recited the blessing upon encountering someone of great genius and then explained what the sale of chametz is all about, giving the investor two dollars to finance the deal. “Warren Buffett owes me two bucks!” he reports.

Rabbi Gross made a kinyan, in which Mr. Buffett would take possession of a small object, “in this case the keys to the synagogue and to my home, with the understanding that when he took procession of the keys, along with them he would also take possession of the challah and scotch” as well as the chametz in Rabbi Gross’ home and in the shul.

They exchanged coins and keys, and Rabbi Kripke said “Hakol sharir vekayam,” declaring the sale valid. Mr. Buffett agreed to turn over the food to the food bank.

“That was it,” Rabbi Gross reports. “I hope that the publicity helps the Food Bank of the Heartland in Omaha with meeting the goal of our pre-Passover food drive. But for me, I can’t wait for the next person to ask me, ‘Do you know Warren Buffett?’ I sure do. I sold him our chametz!”

According to Rabbi Steven Burg, Managing Director of the OU, “It’s amazing to see the sensitivity of Warren Buffett to Judaism’s customs and laws. Congratulations to Rabbi Gross for creating this Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of the Divine Name).”

OU | Enhancing Jewish Life