Kitniyot on Pesach – Pre-Passover 5776

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.

What about turkey? – Re’eh 5774

During my recent vacation, my wife and I spent a lot of time going through photographs from both sides of our families.  Technology allows us to scan and restore old pictures.  So as we went through hundreds of faded images from the past, we asked questions and heard stories from our parents about earlier generations.  Even though many of the stories occurred decades ago, and were about people whom we never met, learning about my family’s past contributes to my own personal story and gives me a greater sense of rootedness.

Something else that connects us to family, tradition, and community, is food.  Family recipes are treasures that are passed from one generation to the next.  Also passed down are types of food that are eaten, and those that are avoided.  Indeed, what we eat and do not eat creates a strong sense of belonging among families and cultures who share those traditions.

This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, includes one of the two presentations of the laws of kashrut.  It presents specific criteria that indicate whether an animal is permitted for Jews to eat or not.  If it walks around on the ground, it must chew its cud and have split hooves.  If it swims in the water, it must have fins and scaled.

When it comes to flying creatures, however, the Torah does not present us with general criteria to determine kosher status.  Instead, it tells us that we may eat any pure bird without telling us what that means.  Then it gives us a list of twenty unkosher bird species, plus the bat.  Three of the twenty forbidden birds are expanded with the word l’minah, “and its variety.”  Thus, we are left with a total of twenty four forbidden species.

Scientists of today have identified approximately ten thousand individual species of birds in the world, so the Torah’s list would seem to be a little short.

The Rabbis of two thousand years ago looked at the Torah’s list, noticed that the two other major categories of living creatures both came with clear criteria, and concluded that they needed to come up with a better system for determining the status of a given bird.  The rabbis proceeded to extrapolate criteria for what makes a kosher bird.  This is what they came up with:

1.  Kosher birds have an extra toe behind the leg, above the foot.

2.  Kosher birds have a crop, which is a pouch for storing food near the throat.

3.  Kosher birds have a gizzard which is easy to peel.  A gizzard is a part of a bird’s stomach where food is ground up by small stones that the bird has swallowed.

4.  Kosher birds are not dores, which means that they do not hold down their prey with their talons while they eat it.

This last criterion is a problem, since it is not a physical characteristic, but rather a behavioral one.  To be certain, one would have to spend all day long observing a particular species to make sure that it never held down its prey while eating.  And so, the Talmud relates that as long as it had the first three criteria, a bird species could be considered kosher.

The medieval commentator Rashi expresses his doubts, however.  It would be too risky to accept a bird as kosher and then have it, a year later, demonstrate this unacceptable behavior.  So Rashi declares that with regard to bird species, there must also be a masorah, a tradition inherited from our ancestors about a particular bird being kosher.  Any bird that does not have a masorah of being kosher is not to be eaten.

This brings us to the bird known as meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey.  The 1519 conquistador expedition of Hernan Cortes first brought turkeys to Europe.  The meaty bird became an overnight sensation on the continent, and was often served as a delicacy at state dinners.  Its popularity quickly spread, and by 1530, turkey was being raised domestically in England, France, and Italy.

When it arrived in England, it was brought by traders from the Eastern Mediterranean, who were referred to as “Turkey Merchants,” as the area was then part of the Ottoman Empire.  The English thus began to call it “Turkey Bird.”

Almost everyone else in Europe got the bird confused with a species of large chicken that had come from India, and subsequently referred to it with a name that meant something along the lines of “bird of India” in local dialects.  To this day, turkey in Hebrew is called tarn’gol hodu, which literally means “Indian chicken.”

When the Pilgrims arrived in New England in 1620, they brought the turkey with them, unknowingly returning it to its continent of origin.

Jews were presented with a difficult question.  Is a turkey a kosher bird?  For centuries, there was a lot of confusion about the matter.

A turkey clearly meets the first three criteria of the Sages.  It has the extra toe, the crop, and the peelable gizzard.  As for holding its prey down while it eats, who is going to spend all that time watching a turkey?

The sixteenth century Ashkenazi legal authority, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, included Rashi’s requirement that there be a masorah, an established tradition for a bird to be considered kosher, in addition to the physical characteristics.  In subsequent centuries, some rabbinic figures argued that Isserles was correct, some said he was incorrect, and others suggested that he was just misunderstood.

A few rabbis claimed that a turkey was basically a big chicken, and therefore kosher.  (In reality, a turkey is more closely related to a pheasant or a partridge.)

Others, thinking that the bird was from India, claimed that there in fact was an established tradition as to its acceptability, since Jews had been living in India for thousands of years.  One Rabbi even claimed that the tradition extended all the way back to the time of Moses!

Numerous creative justifications were presented over the next several centuries, many based upon completely faulty understandings of the history and taxonomy of the bird.

What is undistputed, however, is that Jews loved eating turkey, so it was a foregone conclusion that it would end up being kosher.

Today, Israel has by far the highest per-capita rate of turkey consumption in the world.  The average Israeli eats 20 kg of turkey meat per year.  Next in line is the United States, at 8 kg per year.

We Jews like our turkey.  Except for one family.

Rabbi Yom Tov Lippman ben Natan haLevi Heller, known more popularly by the title of his book Tosafot Yom Tov, lived from 1579 to 1654.  Although it does not appear in any of his writings, he allegedly rejected the kashrut of turkey as it did not have a clear masorah.  Not only that, the legend goes, The Tosafot Yom Tov left instructions that his descendants should refrain from eating turkey.

Even though he knew that the rest of the Jewish world would be eating it, he thought he was right, and he wanted his family to maintain a higher standard.

When I was in Rabbinical School, I had a classmate and a teacher who were descendants of the Tosafot Yom Tov.  They, along with their families, do not eat turkey on Thanksgiving.  It has become a source of pride, and family identity.

Ironically, the Tosafot Yom Tov has created a masorah for his offspring due to the absence of a masorah about turkey.

While I do like eating turkey on Thanksgiving, there is a part of me that is jealous of those descendants of the Tosafot Yom Tov.  They can point to a masorah, a family tradition, that goes back three hundred years.  That is pretty special.  In my family, we have records of some relatives going back into the mid-nineteenth century, but we do not know much about their lives, and we certainly do not have any family traditions that have been passed down,

This is one of the unfortunate losses that we have experienced in modern times.  The Holocaust dislocated many Jews from their origins.  The incredible amount of movement, which leads many of us to live in different cities from our family members, also has led to the loss of family traditions.

I think that there are a lot of people today who feel dislocated from their past, and are seeking to reesatablish connections to ancestors whose memories they have lost.

People sometimes come to meet with me who have discovered that they might have Jewish ancestry.  Sometimes it is the result of a DNA test.  Other times it emerges in conversations with older family members.  These conversations seem to be part of a larger trend of people in our detached, often lonely world seeking to connect with their past.

It is the same loneliness that inspired me to start scanning all of those old family photographs.

I suspect that for most of us, any family traditions we have only go back two or three generations.

As the Jewish people, however, we share the masorah of an extended family that goes back thousands of years.  We still read the central text of our family.  Many of our mitzvot and traditions are rooted in the stories of our biblical ancestors.  These are stories that we know and share.  The personalities of our forebears, with all of their strengths and weaknesses, have become part of our story.

Some might say that there is much in Jewish tradition that is simply a burden.  But often, it is those traditions that do not make much sense, that require a little bit of work, that give us the strongest sense of who we are.  I imagine that it is kind of a pain for the descendants of the Tosafot Yom Tov to pass the plate of turkey to the next person without taking any, but I bet it is also something of a badge of pride.