Now that Purim is safely behind us, we can move on to the next holiday.
It is customary, for the thirty days before Pesach, for Rabbis to begin teaching about the laws of the upcoming festival. I am sure you remember the topic of my Shabbat HaGadol sermon three years ago. In case you need reminding, I spoke about the custom of refraining from eating kitniyot during Pesach.
I want to revisit the topic this morning, as there has recently been a significant development that I am excited to share. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, or CJLS. which considers and approves halakhic – or legal – decisions for the Conservative Movement, recently approved a teshuvah (responsum, or legal decision) that has far-reaching implications on the acceptable cuisine of Pesach. It is based on a teshuvah written by Rabbi David Golinkin nearly thirty years ago in Israel. Rabbi Golinkin, you will remember, taught us as our Scholar in Residence just a couple of months ago.
Of his extensive writings, this teshuvah is the one for which he is best known. The CJLS took up the topic over the past year for the North American Jewish community, issuing its rulings this past December.
I am going to summarize the major points of the teshuvah and then relate it to our own community.
Basically, there is a tradition for Ashkenazi Jews – that is Jews whose ancestors lived in Eastern and Central Europe – to refrain from eating rice, beans and kitniyot during Pesach. Kitniyot literally means legumes, but over time has come to be a catch-all term that encompasses many other types of products.
The custom appears to have originated in France and Provence in the thirteenth century. The earliest written record is by Rabbi Asher of Lunel in 12010, CE. He mentions a practice of some Jews not to eat chick peas during Pesach. He is not sure why, but speculates that it is because the word for fermented beans is chimtzi, which sounds like chametz. But he rejects this explanation.
Over the following centuries, additional explanations are offered as the custom spreads, both in the number of foods that are encompassed in the prohibition, and in the number of communities which embrace it.
Some of the explanations include the following: Kitniyot are cooked as a porridge on the stove top, just like grain. If we get used to eating kitniyot porridge, then we will eventually come to eat porridge made from grain. Another explanation: there are some places where kitniyot are cooked into a kind of bread. If we permit them, then we will come to think that bread from grain is acceptable. A fourth explanation: Sometimes, grains of wheat get mixed in with grains of rice or beans.
And the explanations continue. In his extensive research, Rabbi Golinkin identifies twelve different attempts to describe the reasons for avoiding kitniyot on Pesach. Whenever there are twelve different explanations for the origin of a particular custom, it is probably a good indication that nobody has a clue how it started.
Some of the earliest Ashkenazi authorities reject the practice outright. Rabbi Shmuel from Falaise writes: “it is good to refrain from the prohibition, and the custom that our fathers practiced is due to a mistake…” Rabbeinu Yeruham ben Meshulam, a 14th century authority from Provence, describes it as a minhag shtut – a foolish custom. Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, a 14th century Ashkenazi Rabbi who moved to Spain, says that “it is a superfluous custom, and we should not practice it.” Two important Ashkenazi authorities from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries called it a chumra she’ein lo ta’am v’rei-ach – “a stringency without rhyme or reason.”
Nevertheless, the custom has continued to expand over the centuries, with more and more products included. Some of them are: rice, buckwheat, millet, beans, lentils, peas, sesame seeds, mustard, corn, green beans, snow peas, sugar-snap peas, chickpeas, soybeans, sunflower, poppy seeds, garlic, radishes, peanuts, coffee, potatoes. Eventually, derivatives of these products came to be included as well. So for example, corn syrup, along with canola, sesame, soybean and many other types of oils were banned. A few years ago, a certain segment of the Jewish world began debating whether hemp seeds were kitniyot, and by extension, whether marijuana could be used during Passover.
The problem is that all of our earliest sources clearly state that kitniyot are absolutely acceptable on Pesach.
Let’s start with the basics. The Torah states shiv’at yamim matzot tochelu – “For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.” And the Torah also states lo tokhal alav chametz – “do not eat leavened bread on it.” We are dealing with two terms that seem to be the inverse of one another – matzah and chametz. An early midrash explains that in order to qualify as either matzah or chametz, a food item must be made out of one of five grains: wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. The same midrash then goes on to state explicitly that rice, millet, sprouts, beans, and sesame are not subject to becoming chametz and cannot be baked into matzah. When they are left in water, it explains, they begin to deteriorate, or rot, rather than ferment.
The same grains that become chametz when exposed to water can be baked into unleavened bread and consumed in order to fufill the mitzvah of eating matzah on Pesach.
Eighteen minutes after wheat barley, spelt, oats, and rye touch water, they are considered to begin fermentation. To bake kosher matzah, therefore, the dough needs to be placed in the oven in less than eighteen minutes from the moment that the water and flour are first mixed together.
Early sources include descriptions of particular kitniyot dishes that Rabbis of the Talmud ate during their Passover seder. Rava, for example used to eat spinach beets and rice at his seder.
These basic standards are reinforced in numerous other sources throughout both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, midrashim, and early halakhic works. Maimonides, a thousand years after the early Rabbis, states it pretty clearly: “kitniyot such as rice and millet, beans and lentils and the like cannot become ḥametz, so even if one kneads rice flour and the like in boiling water and covers it with a cloth until it rises like dough that has fermented – it is still permitted to be eaten because it is not leavening but sirahon [decay].”
If the original practice and all of the earliest sources explicitly permit the eating of kitniyot, and if there is no clear explanation for why the custom began, and if numerous authorities agree that it is a mistaken and foolish custom and urge people to disregard it, where does it come from?
Rabbi Golinkin offers a likely theory. Originally, there was a custom to refrain from eating kitniyot on all festivals, not just Pesach. In Italy in the ninth century, there were some Jews who avoided eating beans and legumes because “there is no joy in eating a dish made out of kitniyot.” Possible reasons include: that poor and simple folk used to eat kitniyot, so everyone should try to avoid them on festivals. Alternatively, it is a widespread custom among Jews and non-Jews for kitniyot, and especially lentils, to be eaten by mourners. Therefore, on a festival, when one is supposed to celebrate, it was recommended that one should avoid foods associated with sadness.
Although this practice, which was not especially widespread, applied to all festivals, it only stuck to Pesach. This makes sense, as Pesach is the only one of the festivals whose laws put such a strong emphasis on categories of prohibited foods. By the time the practice reached Provence in the thirteenth century, the original reason was lost.
Once the custom took hold, it spread. Ashkenazi Rabbinic authorities, beginning in the late middle ages, were aware of the custom to prohibit kitniyot, but did not have access to all of the sources. And so they approved it. The power of custom, after all, is incredibly strong, especially when it concerns food.
In fact, custom can sometimes be even more powerful than law itself. Rabbeinu Tam, the grandson of Rashi, states minhag avoteinu Torah hi – The customs of our ancestors is Torah; minhag halakhah hi – Custom is law; and minhag mevatel halakhah – Custom cancels law.
On the other hand, what about when the custom in question is based upon a mistake? Does the custom still have the force of law? Rabbeinu Tam also notes that the word minhag, custom, spelled backwards, is gehinom, the Jewish word for hell. He also teaches “There are customs that one should not rely upon even in situations with regard to which it was taught ‘all goes according to the custom of the land.'”
So where does that leave us? Rabbi Golinkin mentions five reasons why we might eliminate the custom:
1. It detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods.
2. It causes exorbitant price rises which result in “major financial loss.”
3. It emphasizes the insignificant (rice, beans and legumes) and ignores the significant (hametz which is forbidden from the five kinds of grain).
4. It causes people to disparage the commandments in general and the prohibition of hametz in particular — if this custom has no purpose and is observed, then there is no reason to observe other commandments.
5. Finally, it causes unnecessary divisions between different Jewish ethnic groups.
The only reason to continue to observe the prohibition is “the desire to preserve an old custom.” Rabbi Golinkin, along with a majority of the members of the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, does not think that this is sufficient to continue the ban on kitniyot.
If Ashkenazim want to continue observing the custom of their ancestors, even though it is permitted to eat rice and kitniyot, he recommends that they go back to the original custom that limited the ban to just rice and kitniyot. All of the other ingredients that eventually became encompassed in the ban would be just fine, such as oils, peas, garlic, mustard, sunflower seeds, peanuts, and others.
A word of caution, though, for those who are going to eat kitniyot on Pesach: it is still important to buy packaged products with a proper Passover hekhsher. More and more items are available that state “kosher for Pesach for those who eat kitniyot.” Pars, our local Jewish grocery store, clearly identifies them on their shelves.
There are also specific rules for how to purchase pure kitniyot like dried rice and beans before Pesach. The CJLS encourages all of us who intend to modify our practice to ask questions and to consult Passover guides.
The Rabbinical Assembly publishes an annual Passover guide each year. This year’s edition has been modified to include instructions for those who choose to include kitniyot in their Pesach this year. Here is a link to this year’s guide.
Now, regarding our Sinai community: In our congregation, we have many members who are Sephardic, Mizrachi, and Jews by choice, or who have at least one parent who is a Jew by choice.
It does not seem right to me to force everyone to observe the strictest Ashkenazi custom, especially when it has been proven to have been a mistake. That is why, starting three years ago, there has been a kitniyot dish served at our second night community seder. I believe in full disclosure, so I have always made sure to clearly identify it so that those who choose to continue to maintain the tradition of their ancestors may do so. I have also provided guidance with regard to kitniyot to those who have asked for it – especially converts and vegetarians, for whom Pesach can be quite a challenge without rice and beans.
On every teshuvah approved by the CJLS, it states “The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly provides guidance in matters of halakhah for the Conservative movement. The individual rabbi, however, is the authority for the interpretation and application of all matters of halakhah.”
So, this Rabbi is convinced. I accept the teshuvah permitting all Jews to eat kitniyot and rice on Pesach. Over the next month, please ask me if you have any questions.
Each year, I sarcastically joke, chag kasher o sameach. Have a happy or kosher Passover. This year, to all of us, I say chag kasher v’sameach. May we all have a happy and joyous festival.