Sharing Passover – Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

As we just announced, Rosh Chodesh Nisan occurs this Tuesday.  In other words, the two week countdown until the first Seder begins in just three days.  (Aaaah!)

I am sure you noticed that we took out two Torah scrolls this morning.  That is because this Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Nisan.

In the special reading that we chanted from the second Sefer Torah, God makes a similar announcement to Moses and Aaron.  It is the first day of the month of Nisan.

God gives them instructions on how to prepare.  This is the first recorded observance of Passover.  Here are the basics:  On the tenth day of the month, each household must select an unblemished, one-year-old male sheep or goat.  They must then watch over it for three days, making sure that it does not acquire any new blemishes, which would render it unfit for the offering.

On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, they are to slaughter it.  They take the blood and paint it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes.  This signals to the Angel of Death that this is a Jewish home.  In his wreaking destruction over all the first born of Egypt, he will know to pass over these houses.

Each household then roasts its selected animal over a fire, and eats it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They are not allowed to have any leftovers the next day.  Whatever is not consumed that night must be burned up.

The Israelites are supposed to eat in their traveling clothes – loins girded, staff in hand, and sandals on feet.

Then, God switches gears, explaining that the people of Israel will continue to observe this holiday as a seven day festival for all time – in remembrance of being rescued from slavery in Egypt.

More than three thousand years later, our seders, and our observance of Passover, still look back to this moment.

A detail in this first Seder stands out.  The instructions are not directed to the priests, or to the tribal leaders, or to just the men, or even to individual Israelites.  The laws of Passover are directed to households.  People have to come together and share.

Remember the details – no leftover are allowed.  Given those restrictions, a lamb or sheep is way too much for one person to eat alone.  So it has got to be eaten by an entire household.  But what if a whole lamb is still too much for an entire household? The Torah takes it into consideration: “But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat…”  (Exodus 12:4)

Imagine the setting in Egypt.  Israelites are rushing around, trying to get ready to leave Egypt.  They are packing their things.  But in the midst of all their preparations, they have to plan for one final meal.  They pick out the lucky animal, and take special care of it for three days, amidst all the hustle and bustle.

Then, the night before departure – one final feast, a barbecue.  Children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, servants – all come together to share.  Those without large families meet up with their neighbors.  Nobody is left out.  Why?  Because there cannot be any leftovers.

Nowadays, there are surely lots of leftovers after the seder.  At our house, by the time we get to the main course, it is so late, and we have already eaten so much, that nobody has any appetite left.

But the legacy of making sure everyone is included in the celebration of Pesach, in the celebration of freedom, is still with us in two significant ways.

The first is through the practice of maot chittin.  Literally, “coins for wheat.”  Since the time of the Talmud, it has been customary to give kosher for Passover flour to the poor prior to the holiday.  This enables them to bake their own unleavened bread.  Keep in mind, this tradition developed in the days before Manischewitz invented factory-baked matzah.

Giving flour, or money for flour, was considered to be ideal, as it is more dignified when a person can bake his or her own matzah.  Alternatively, a person could give matzah.

In some communities, local Jewish authorities would actually compel miserly residents to contribute towards Maot Chittin.  

A story is told of a woman who once went to her Rabbi with a strange question:  “Rabbi, is it permissible to drink four cups of milk at the seder instead of four cups of wine?

Shocked by the question, the Rabbi asked her why she would want to use milk.

“I am very poor.  I cannot afford wine.”

So the Rabbi gave her a large sum of money, and told her to go buy wine for her seder.

The Rabbi’s wife overheard this exchange, and when the women left, she asked her husband why he gave her so much money.

“Anyone who is intending to drink milk at the seder certainly does not have enough money to serve meat.  So I gave her enough money to purchase both.”

Every year at Sinai, members contribute money towards Maot Chittin.  It enables us, as a congregation, to help feed people.  I am privileged, as Sinai’s Rabbi, to send hundreds of dollars each year to our local Jewish Family Service’s No One Abandoned Here project, as well as to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

The other way in which we make sure everyone is included in Pesach is captured in the opening lines of the Maggid section of the Haggadah.  Ha lachma anya…  “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover.”

While reciting these words, it is customary to open our doors to look outside to see if anyone is wandering around, looking for a seder to attend.  Not likely, so this action is largely symbolic.

But many of us try to fulfill this ideal by inviting guests to our seder tables.  Just as the first seder involved entire households, extended families, and neighbors joining together, seders today can be big affairs.  We invite relatives and friends.  For many seders, it is basically the same guest list year after year.  And that is wonderful.  We trace this tradition all the way back to our Israelite ancestors in Egypt.

I wonder, though, if we could do better.  Back in the shtetl, everyone knew everyone else’s business.  If a neighbor did not have a seder to attend, word would get out pretty quickly – and an invitation would follow.  But in our days, when we are dispersed and no longer dwell in tight-knit Jewish neighborhoods, we have no clue about each other’s plans.  We should not make any assumptions.

I assure you that there are plenty of Jews who do not have a seder to attend.

It is one of the reasons that I am proud of Sinai’s Second Night community seder.  It gives us a chance to celebrate together.  It also gives some people a seder who would not otherwise have one to go to.  We are so grateful to Rina Katzen for generously underwriting the seder to help keep the expense down.  Even so, it is still a lot of money for some people.

This year, let us give ourselves a challenge.  For those who are hosting, think about everyone you know.  Is there an individual or a family who might not have a seder to attend?  Invite them.  You do not have to know them well, or even at all.  According to Ha lachma anya we are supposed to literally bring strangers in off the street.

We shouldn’t worry about not having enough space or enough food.  I know from experience that it is always possible to squeeze in one extra person, or even four extra people.  I promise, there will still be plenty of leftovers.

By embracing the spirit of ha lachma anya, we get back to an important part of the first seder in Egypt.  Everyone is included.  Let’s make it happen this year.

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.