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Food Restrictions on Passover Explained: Chametz and Kitniyot

Can We Eat Beans, Rice, Corn, and Peas on Passover?

When was the last time you remembered something? Did you remember something that you had forgotten, or was it something you just hadn’t thought about in a while? How did you remember? Was it by seeing, thinking, smelling, tasting? What was the memory: hazy, blurry, sharp, clear? It isn’t just scientists and biologists who know that memory is often a complex and complicated process. Our ancient tradition and rabbis knew this as well, and put all their efforts into Passover. Therefore, something as seemingly simple as food becomes a trigger for memory, or a reminder of the past: our own past as well as our people’s distant past as slaves under Pharaoh.

Perhaps, what first comes to mind when thinking of Passover’s foods is matzah. What is it, beyond “square,” or “round”? Boxes of matzah – that plain, flat, and, well, plain unleavened bread – can most often been seen blocking the path of your shopping cart as your buy gefilte fish and other, tastier Pesach delicacies. Most literally, matzah is unleavened bread. Symbolically, it is most often seen as a symbol of freedom, that first food eaten by a newly freed people. At the same time, matzah is also the “bread of affliction,” the bread of poverty. So simultaneously matzah serves as a warning, or reminder, as well: our Jewish tradition does not equate freedom with wealth.

What is Chametz and Why Can’t We Eat It?

Of course, we cannot have matzah, unleavened bread, without its opposite: leaven, or chametz. You might find it surprising that the Torah is more stringent about chametz than any other forbidden food! Chametz refers to products made from wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt. According to the Talmud (B. Pesachim 35a), these are the only grains from which matzah can be made, and therefore, strictly speaking, the only ones which are subject to the Torah’s prohibition of eating chametz, or leaven, on Passover.

If that helps describe chametz literally, how might be describe chametz symbolically? Have you ever watched dough rise in the oven, or have you ever just seen bread? Dough rises, and what results is “puffed-up,” bigger than before. Full of air – or perhaps full of itself. That is exactly what chametz has come to symbolize. Philo, a Greek-Jewish philosopher, described chametz as “pride,” because leavened bread is “puffed-up.” Removing chametz on Passover from our homes, our lives, our families, is a struggle between who we really are now and who we can be once we strip away all the trappings of self-importance.

If chametz is so negative, why do we eat it all year? While it is oftentimes very difficult to be a Jew, the Jewish Tradition does not demand of us that which is impossible. Of course, Jewish Tradition doesn’t prohibit the eating of matzah after Passover either!

What are Kitniyot and What are the Rules about Eating It?

Just as chametz grows and grows (in the oven), so too did the category of chametz expand. For Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent), the tradition on Passover has been to not eat foods considered kitniyot, which includes many legumes, as well as beans, peas, rice, millet, corn, and seeds. There have been many reasons Ashkenazic communities refrained from eating kitniyot. For example, there was a concern that because kitniyot can be ground to make flour and then baked, one could mistakenly assume that their neighbor was eating chametz. Furthermore, there was concern that chametz grain might get mixed up with the kitniyot, if they were stored in close proximity. This kitniyot prohibition was not accepted by most Sephardim (Jews of Spanish or Arab descent) – but that is not to say Sephardic observance of Passover has been any less meaningful than that of their Ashkenazic neighbors. Why is it, then, that many Jews who might not have done so in the past, now eat kitniyot during Passover?

Two Groups of Rabbis Now Permit Kitniyot on Passover

In the recent past, two groups of rabbis have met and, independent of one another, ruled that both Ashkenazim and Sephardim should be permitted to eat rice, corn, and kitniyot during Pesach. Who were these groups, and how did they determine such a ruling? The two groups were the Responsa Committee of the Reform Jewish Movement, and the Responsa Committee of the Israeli Conservative Movement. Responsum are rabbinic decisions.

Briefly, these rabbinical committees determined that the prohibition of eating of rice, beans and kitniyot is in direct contradiction to the opinion of all the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud (except one), and also contradicts the theory as well as the practice of more than fifty post-Talmudic Sages. Opposition to the ban on eating kitniyot began around the time of its inception in 13th century France, with one Rabbi calling the practice “a mistaken custom,” and the second rabbi calling it “a foolish custom”. With regard to Halachah (Jewish law), the central question is this: whether it is permissible to do away with a mistaken or foolish custom. Many rabbinical authorities (including the Rambam, or Moses Maimonides) have ruled that it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory!) to do away with this type of "foolish custom”. Furthermore, there are many good reasons to do away with this "foolish custom.” A foolish custom:

  1. Detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods.
  2. Causes exorbitant price rises, which result in “major financial loss,” and, as is well known, "The Torah takes pity on the people of Israel's money."
  3. Emphasizes the insignificant (legumes) and ignores the significant (the avoidance of chametz).
  4. Can cause people to ridicule Jewish ritual in general and the prohibition against eating chametz in particular. One might think that if this custom prohibiting eating kitniyot has no purpose yet is observed, then perhaps there is no reason to observe other mitzvot.
  5. Can even cause divisions between World Jewry’s ethnic groups.

What if I Still Want to Refrain from Eating Kitniyot?

On the other hand, there is only one reason to observe this custom: the desire to preserve an old custom. While this desire can be very strong, our rabbinic decisors agreed that this desire does not override all that was mentioned above. However, there will be Ashkenazim who will want to stick to the "custom of their ancestors," and who will be drawn to that tradition, even though they know that it is permitted to eat kitniyot on Pesach. Remember, this too is permissible, especially in light of Reform Judaism’s openness to all aspects of Jewish tradition.

Rabbi David Golinkin concluded the Israeli Conservative Movement’s Responsum by stating that with a willingness to eat kitniyot on Pesach (Passover), “This will make their lives easier and will add joy and pleasure to their observance of Pesach.” It can become very easy to think that observing Pesach represents an unbearable burden: so much preparation, the need to give up chametz and instead eat matzah – the list surely goes on. We must remember that matzah is not only the “bread of affliction,” but the symbol of freedom as well!

Increasing the Joy and Pleasure during Passover

Rabbi Golinkin ends his legal decision with an understanding and insightful directive. He notes that adding joy and pleasure to our observance of Pesach was probably not on our Passover shopping lists – and if it was, did it even make the top 10? Now we have an opportunity to prepare for Pesach with an additional item on our “to do” lists: adding joy and pleasure to our observance of Pesach.

May this be a meaningful Pesach for you and your loved ones!