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Let them eat beans? A Passover dilemma
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Let them eat beans? A Passover dilemma

Ashkenazi custom bans legumes and corn, but what about vegetarians?

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

My vegetarian Ashkenazi husband gets to live out his Ashkephardi dream on Pesach, and he’s brought us all along on this particular freedom journey, notwithstanding my mother’s initial consternation.

But first, some background: Hametz, the stuff that cannot be eaten on Passover, comes from five ingredients: wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt. That means no cereal, cookies, pizza, pasta, beer, and especially bread, except in its unleavened (and least appetizing) form, matza.

In the 13th century, some rabbis in France prohibited certain ingredients like rice, corn, millet, beans, and other legumes. Together, they are known as kitniyot. No one is sure why they were prohibited. It is thought that people might confuse these ingredients with hametz, or that they might be stored with hametz. Ashkenazi Jews adopted the ban, while Sephardim largely did not.

In more recent years, particularly since the establishment of Israel, where Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews live side by side, the custom has been the subject of heated debate. Many rabbis have strengthened the prohibition, arguing that a 700-year-old custom should not be lightly discontinued. Others have ruled it is time to end the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide on this issue.

You’ll have to ask your own rabbi if you’re not sure what applies to you, but here’s a tip: If you’re Ashkenazi, to the right of the Orthodox/liberal divide, and you don’t live in Israel, the answer is going to be “no kitniyot.” If you’re to the left, but not too far to the left, it will be unpredictable. If you go very far to the left, well, you always have the option of picking and choosing, or doing what the community might expect.

Back in the early days of our marriage, after I, a confirmed carnivore, agreed to run a vegetarian home and raise vegetarian children, on Passover, we ate lots of cheese and eggs and empty sugar and carbs and not much else. Eventually, we caught kitniyot fever as a way to have a more varied and healthy diet during the holiday (well, he caught it first; it took me a while to get infected). We learned that some rabbis were beginning to permit Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot under certain circumstances, often including those on a vegetarian diet. Eventually, we embraced the shift. It was pretty weird at first, and felt sort of like eating lobster.

Meanwhile, my mother worried that just eating in our house would pose problems. We received assurances from our own rabbi that using kitniyot cannot render pots, pans, silverware, or homes hametzdik. Still, every year, as sure as my Pesach eve cleaning fails to meet my day-after Purim ambitions, I have to assure my mother that the rice and beans in the pots and on the tables do not render the pots and pans, the silverware, the dishes, and, indeed the house hametzdik. In short, even if she doesn’t eat kitniyot herself, she can eat in our home during Passover.

But this year, I have a new dilemma: My children, and my home, are no longer vegetarian. (I never gave up being a confirmed carnivore; I only promised to keep the kitchen vegetarian and raise the kids vegetarian until 13 or such time that I felt they needed meat in their diet. For both of these reasons, and a few others, this was the year we acquired a second set of dishes for meat.)

So if we started eating kitniyot because we were vegetarians, should we give them up because we now eat meat, or at least three of us do, during the year and on Pesach?

In order to find out, I did what all good modern Jews would do in my position: search the Internet.

Preserving customs

 

Most sites conclude that kitniyot are forbidden to Ashkenazim, even for vegetarians. Well, I crossed that bridge years ago.

But my search also turned up a host of sites offering information that suggested that authorities may be beginning to cave in to those Jews from across the spectrum (yes, even across that liberal/Orthodox divide) who are broadening their Passover diets with or without their rabbis’ imprimaturs.

The Orthodox Union announced on Feb. 28 that it would be using a new “kosher for Pesach” label on kitniyot. Presumably, the label is intended for the Sephardi customer who doesn’t want hametz mixed in with her beans, but it also makes it easier for Ashkenazim to enter kitniyot country.

This year’s Passover issue of Kolot, the voice of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, reprinted the 1989 responsum on kitniyot by Rabbi David Golinkin, rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, who concluded that “both Ashkenazim and Sephardim are permitted to eat legumes and rice on Pesach without fear of transgressing.” This ruling originally applied only to Jews living in Israel. But that restriction was not printed with the piece in Kolot.

Last year, the Union for Traditional Judaism came out with a responsum offering a lenient position on kitniyot derivatives, like oils. The Forward reported in 2009 on individuals from across the spectrum who have taken the step, on their own, to add kitniyot. And perhaps my personal favorite is “The Kitniyot Liberation Front,” launched in 2006 by an American immigrant in Israel, who argued that the prohibition only served to drive a wedge between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

A number of local Conservative rabbis have begun telling congregants that it’s time to give up or liberalize the “foolish custom” (that’s a halachic category, not a slur) of avoiding kitniyot on Passover. While Rabbi Steven Bayar of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn allows kitniyot only for vegans, vegetarians, and those with celiac disease, others have gone even further. (In an e-mail, he said that depending on personal and other circumstances, he would advise that we give up the kitniyot when we include meat in our diet. “If the reason for allowing kitniyot to a vegetarian no longer applies, then the kitniyot don’t apply as well,” he wrote, adding, “According to the Vilna Gaon, we don’t eat matzoh on Passover because we like matzoh. We eat matzoh on Passover because we love bread.”)

Rabbi Avi Friedman of the Summit Jewish Community Center said in an e-mail exchange, “Relying on the responsum by Rabbi David Golinkin — who was my teacher during my year of study in Israel — I have no problem encouraging Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot on Passover. I eat them in my own home. As Rabbi Golinkin cautions, however, we have to be careful with processed foods. That is why it is so exciting that the OU is certifying some kitniyot products for Passover this year.

“Of course, I completely respect those Ashkenazi Jews who wish to preserve their family custom of avoiding kitniyot,” said Friedman. Among the others who embrace allowing kitniyot locally is my own rabbi at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, Francine Roston, by whose ruling I ultimately will abide.

Responding to my query, she said, “If the consumption of kitniyot will enhance the festive nature of your holiday and provide valuable nutrition for vegetarians or children with picky diets, then you should include kitniyot in your Passover diet.”

She added, “If it will enhance your Yom Tov, you should [eat kitniyot]. Not eating kitniyot is about tradition. If you grew up eating it, I would think you would continue. The main lesson is that kitniyot are not hametz. So as long as you are careful not to buy kitniyot that have mixed in hametz,” you are okay.

She emphasized, “Kitniyot are NOT hametz and will NOT make your house nonkosher for Passover.”

In fact, like Friedman, Roston eats kitniyot in her own home during the holiday, but only when purchased before Pesach, “so that if there is any speck of hametz mistakenly mixed in my pure rice, it is nullified by my declaration of nullification I do after my search and at the burning of the hametz.”

Phew. My own rabbi has now embraced kitniyot, so I don’t have to worry.

Of course, a lot of people will look at this debate and decide it doesn’t amount to, well, a hill of beans. A traditionalist might say that it is hardly a hardship to do without legumes and corn for eight days, and a liberal might scoff at those who expend their intellectual energy arguing about such minutiae. But like any good Jewish argument, the kitniyot debate is also about bigger themes: the value of tradition, reverence for the law, the need for Jewish unity, and the limits of personal autonomy.

So, it turns out, we can have our beans and eat matza kugel, too. The only question is, will my mother join the kitniyot revolution this year? I’m guessing not, since it isn’t her tradition. But maybe next year, in Jerusalem.

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