As another Pesach (Passover) has come and gone, I have continued to reflect on the issue of kitniyot eating during the holiday.
I discussed the issue briefly just before Pesach in one of my blog articles. Observant Jews are prohibited from eating any kind of “chametz” during Pesach. Chametz was traditionally defined, under Jewish law, as any of the five grains – wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye – which came into contact with water for more than 18 minutes. These products were all strictly forbidden and still are among all Jewish communities.
However, from the beginning of the 13th century C.E. in France, according to Rabbi David Golinkin (See Responsa OH 453:1 5749), a custom began, among Ashkenazi Jews of adding a whole range of legumes (“kitniyot”) to the list of prohibited items. The practice spread in certain communities and became widespread among Ashkenazi Jews in many parts of Europe by the 15th and 16th centuries C.E. The list of prohibited foods grew to include peas, lentils, mustard, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and even peanuts. Even today, some rabbis are determined to continue adding food categories to the list. Quinoa is an example of a food that some rabbis have recently banned without a really coherent justification.
Interestingly, Sephardic Jews and Yemenite Jews never adopted this custom of prohibiting kitniyot. They considered the Torah prohibitions against eating chametz sufficient and followed those prohibitions strictly. Some Jews mistakenly believe that this means that Sephardic Jews are more lenient about Pesach. But that is not really the case. They simply never accepted that the prohibition against eating chametz should be extended to a whole range of foods which were never really chametz. Some rabbis, even Ashkenazi rabbis, have called the custom “mistaken” and even “foolish.”
Legally speaking (at least regarding halacha – Jewish law), it is not strictly forbidden to eat kitniyot on Pesach. But it has now become a custom that has been followed for hundreds of years by Ashkenazi Jews. As with many other customs, it is very difficult to draw the appropriate line between maintaining religious practices and customs on the one hand and modernizing these practices where appropriate and permissible. The main argument that is usually presented by non-kitniyot eaters is one of tradition – that this has been the practice in our family and our community for hundreds of years – and who are we to end our family traditions?
Like with many other practices, these are not easy decisions. Many observant Jews are worried that changes to tradition and continuity are slippery slopes. When I spoke about this issue with a close relative, she said “well if you are going to eat rice and beans, I guess you will no longer need to change over your dishes on Pesach.” The implication was that adopting a different practice with respect to kitniyot was part of a leniency that would lead to more liberal practices in other areas.
Since we attend a Conservative synagogue, we have certainly accepted the need to change, modernize or review certain practices. For example, one could argue that it has been a tradition for many years in the Orthodox Jewish community to prevent women from playing any active role in the prayer services. Most Conservative synagogues have now accepted fully or at least partially egalitarian practices that mark a change in traditional practice. Should we not accept this same type of argument with respect to kitniyot? Of course, many observant Jews are opposed to these changes, which they also view as part of a slippery slope. They point, particularly, to U.S. Conservative and Reform synagogues and claim that once you allow for an egalitarian service, you will soon make many other wholesale changes to the traditional service, so much so that it will no longer really resemble a “traditional” service. I have to admit that drawing the line can be very challenging in dealing with these issues.
Living in Israel, there is another reality as well. The majority practice is now clearly one of permitting kitniyot during Pesach. The supermarket shelves are filled with products that are marked, in tiny letters, “for kitniyot eaters only.” Restaurants are open across Israel, mostly “for kitniyot eaters.” It is not just Sephardic Jews but Ashkenazi Jews as well, even those who are Orthodox and very observant. In Israel, not eating kitniyot during Pesach has come to be viewed as an extreme practice, limited to some specific Ashkenazi communities, mostly ultra-religious or immigrant Jewish communities (from the U.S., South Africa etc.,). As a result, it is extremely difficult to find many products during Pesach that are kitniyot free. Products like oil, margarine and even tomato sauce usually say, in small letters, that they are for kitniyot eaters only.
Walking along the streets of Ra’anana during Hol Hamoed, the intermediary days of Pesach¸ it was very interesting to see the range of food places that were open for business and strictly kosher for Passover during the holiday. Some hamburger places were open and were using corn flour to make the buns. Some pizza places were open (one was actually kitniyot free and used potato flour). Two falafel shops were open, using corn flour to make the pita breads. Lavan, the popular yogurt place was open, with a slightly changed list of toppings (no granola this week). And of course, the coffee bar Aroma was open for business, with bourekas and other pastries made from corn flour. All of these places were labelled as strictly kosher for Passover, but for kitniyot eaters only. And they were all being frequented by observant Jews, many of whom were Ashkenazim.
In his 1989 responsa, Rabbi Golinkin addressed some of the reasons for doing away with the custom. One of the reasons that he cited is to eliminate the custom because it “detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods.” This is a point echoed by a friend of mine from Ra’anana, who reminded me that Pesach is a holiday about celebrating freedom from slavery and about redemption. It is not supposed to be a holiday of suffering. So many of the rules that Ashkenazim have followed during Pesach have unnecessarily limited our food choices and made it very difficult to enjoy the culinary aspects of the holiday. Not to mention the effects on regularity of eating matzah every day without eating enough of these other kitniyot products.
As someone who has always followed the kitniyot prohibitions during Pesach, I am not sure that I would feel comfortable sitting down to eat a bowl of rice on Pesach despite all of the arguments set out above. But, as Rabbi Golinkin suggested in his responsa, even for those uncomfortable eating rice and beans, there should still be little reason to avoid peas, green beans, garlic, mustard, sunflower seeds, peanuts, canola oil and the many derivatives of these products.
I guess I still have another year to think about it but I’m inclined to change my practice. If we are in Toronto celebrating Pesach, we may have to reconsider to ensure that non-kitniyot eaters feel comfortable eating at our house over the holiday. But otherwise, I'm likely to say "pass the kosher l’Pesach humus so I can spread some on my corn tortilla."