Shabbat – First Day of Pesach
April 4, 2015 – 15 Nisan 5775
Congregation Bet Ha’am
Rabbi Jared H. Saks
To bean, or not to bean? That is the question. The question of kitniyot – legumes, corn, and rice – prohibited by some ethnic Jewish communities during this week of Passover, but permitted and at times required by others – is the perennial question at this season each year. A number of years ago, I embarked on a year of study regarding kitniyot and whether or not I would abandon the Ashkenazi practice of not eating beans, rice, and corn during the week of Pesach, in favor of the Sephardi custom of not prohibiting these foods, which are decidedly not chametz. I couched my approach to this topic not in my ethnic ancestry, but rather in my commitment to what it means to be a Reform Jew, to become knowledgeable about the commandments and rituals of Judaism and, only then, to decide whether or not to amend my own personal practice.
I’ll cut to the chase and let you know that a number of years ago, after lengthy study with a few members of my then congregation, I decided that the prohibition of kitniyot did not enhance my observance of Passover. In fact, it hindered it. By removing this prohibition, I could more fully embrace the story of my own liberation from Egypt and more joyfully celebrate my freedom. Now, let me share with you some of what I learned then and what I continue to learn about this great divide in the Jewish community.
In the laws of Passover that appear first in Torah, what is prohibited during this weeklong festival is chametz, five grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye. There’s no mention of beans or peas, corn or millet, rice or peanuts. These prohibitions were a later addition to Jewish custom and many Jewish authorities – Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox alike – have issued statements and teshuvot (rabbinic responsa) indicating that the prohibition of kitniyot is an outdated practice. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me first share how they came to be part of Passover custom.
The first time that the custom of prohibiting beans, rice, and corn in addition to the five traditional grains associated with Passover is mentioned is in the 13th century in France and Provence. The custom was mentioned by three rabbis (R. Asher of Lunel, R. Samuel of Falaise, and R. Peretz of Corbeil) and from there the practice spread to a number of countries. Still, the reason for the custom, at the time, was unknown, and since then rabbis have come up with at least twelve different explanations for the custom. The most common, in my opinion, are, first, the concern that flour made these products, especially from rice or corn, could be mistaken for wheat flour or flour from the other four traditionally prohibited grains and their consumption could mislead someone to think that wheat, barley, oat flour, and so on, would be permitted. The second reason was that crops sown in juxtaposed fields could somehow cross-contaminate one another and that by eating rice or beans, you could inadvertently consume wheat grown in the next field.
Even in the early days of this custom, many rabbis, most notably among them Maimonides, ruled in favor of doing away with the prohibition on kitniyot, arguing that it detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods and also because it causes exorbitant prices on Passover products, which can harmfully impact those who observe Passover. The more food that is available during Passover means the more affordable it becomes, making it a more accessible holiday for more people.
The prohibition of kitniyot during Passover seems to run contradictory not only to sensibility about food, but actually to the Torah’s and the Talmud’s own teachings about our observance of the holiday. In a number of places, the rabbis specifically note that only wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye are considered chametz, leaven, because other products, such as rice, millet, poppy seed, kitniyot, and sesame do not become leaven when in contact with moisture, but rather only decay. This excludes them from being considered chametz (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Masekhta d’Pisha, Parashah 8).
When the Talmud (Pesachim 35a) indicates that one rabbi, Yochanan ben Nuri, asserts that rice is prohibited on Passover, the text itself says that our tradition does not follow Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri. The Talmud discusses what grains can be used to make matzah, which would be the same grains prohibited during Passover if they were eaten in any form other than matzah. Our usual suspects, wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye are listed. Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri asserts that rice can be used to fulfill the mitzvah of eating matzah during Passover, but his colleagues indicate he is wrong, which means that rice cannot, then, be one of the prohibited grains, since it cannot qualify for a primary ingredient in matzah. Later, Talmud (Pesachim 114b) goes so far as to say that two cooked dishes were placed before Rav Huna – spinach beets and rice – at the Passover table. Rav Ashi indicates that we, “learn from Rav Huna that there are none who pay heed to the words of Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri.”
In modern times, too, rabbinic authorities of every color have indicated that the prohibition of kitniyot is not on par with the prohibition of chametz. The late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas political party, taught that Ashkenazi Jews are permitted to eat non-kitniyot food in the homes of Sephardi Jews, not even requiring special utensils. While he doesn’t give them permission to eat kitniyot, his ruling indicates that the potential cross-contamination of kitniyot into the food of Ashkenazi Jews will not violate their observance of Passover.
In a rabbinic responsum for the Conservative Movement in Israel, Rabbi David Golinkin writes that there’s only one reason to observe this custom: the desire to preserve an old custom. This is an honorable goal. Rabbi Golinkin suggests that those who wish to continue to observe the prohibition of kitniyot during Passover should nonetheless consider using oil derived from legumes and consume the other so-called forbidden foods, which include peas, mustard, sunflower seeds, peanuts, and more. Consider how much more food could be available to you if you added soybean oil alone to your list of permitted Passover foods.
My Reform colleague, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, made a call this year for Jews to join the Kitniyot Liberation Front. The group’s Facebook page says, “Kitniyot (legumes) are not chameitz. This movement is dedicated to liberating all Jews who wish to be free of this questionable custom that causes needless divisions between families and friends.” Like my own process a number of years ago, Rabbi Salkin indicates that he has, over the years, struggled with whether or not to include rice and beans in his Passover diet. For me, this struggle hit, somehow, with a desire for sushi during Passover, knowing that if I could have rice, I could have Passover. This is how Rabbi Salkin describes his struggle:
“By the fourth day of Passover, I get a little antsy.
“I call my father and I ask him to review our family tree with me. ‘Where, exactly, is our family from?’
“‘Vilna,’ he says, ‘What the Lithuanians call Vilnius. The capital of Lithuania. The Jerusalem of Europe!’ he waxes poetic.
“By the sixth day of Passover, I remember that my late mother once said her ancestors came from Munkascz, in Hungary. I take it upon myself to say that she must have got it wrong.
“My maternal grandfather, I am sure, was from Aleppo, Syria.
“(Hey, if you can convert to Judaism, why can’t you do an ‘intra-Jewish’ conversion and go from Ashkenazic to Sephardic?)”
For Rabbi Salkin, it’s not actually about changing his Jewish ancestry. That’s not my goal, either. I don’t pretend that my ancestors were from Yemen or Syria or Spain. But I do think about my relationship with Judaism and how its traditions came to be and what that narrative means for my relationship with Jewish practice and with God. Rabbi Salkin offers this theory of why so many Jews today are open to dropping the prohibition of kitniyot: “Among the ultra-Orthodox, there is a tendency to indulge in chumrot – stringencies in Jewish practice – and for pious Jews to actually compete with each other to increase those stringencies. I sense that, among the modern Orthodox and more liberal Jews, there has been a gradual loss of patience in this way of doing Judaism, especially with its political manifestations in the state of Israel. Basically, the non-Orthodox are saying: ‘We want our Judaism back!’” Instead of making Passover more and more stringent, making it harder and harder to observe, we should open the door to everyone who wants to engage, to everyone who is hungry for Jewish ritual and tradition, and do away with these antiquated and fabricated stringencies in Passover custom.
For me, embracing a different traditional Jewish practice of Passover, even though it may not have originated in my own lineage, opens up my observance and celebration of Passover in a way that makes it more accessible and more celebratory. Moving from a narrow place, a mitzrayim, of food custom into an openness and a freedom that allows me to engage more deeply in Passover, is my motivation in including kitniyot in my Passover diet. Maybe it’s for you; maybe it’s not. Perhaps this year, around the fourth of fifth day of Passover, you’ll consider rice or corn or beans. Perhaps you won’t. Whatever you do, relish your freedom and be sure to share it with others.