Today is the second full day of Passover, a holiday that begins with two nights of ritual ‘Seder’ meals, and continues for eight days of avoiding 'chametz', or leavened bread.
It’s a biblical holiday, celebrating the liberation of the Jewish slaves in Egypt, and their exodus to Israel. And, indeed, the prohibition of chametz is similarly biblical, with Exodus 13:3 ruling out leavened bread made from the ‘five grains’: wheat, spelt, barley, oats (or possibly two-rowed barley, depending on the translation), and rye.
Subsequently, in the 6th century B.C., the rabbinical Great Assembly came up with the idea of “asu syag latorah,” building a fence around the Torah: they introduced broader prohibitions surrounding the original biblical ones, to prevent people from inadvertently violating commandments. Under the Assembly’s lead, the prohibition spread from leavened bread made from the five grains, to any use of the five grains other than in matzah.
Two thousand years or so later, another traditional passover ’fence’ emerged, at least amongst Ashkenazi Jews, those living in Eastern Europe. That group extended the prohibition to ‘kitniyot,’ other seeds, grains, and legumes that might be made into a flour, such as rice, corn, beans, soybeans, peas, and lentils.
Sephardic Jews, those from around the Mediterranean Sea (in Portugal, Spain, Northern Africa, and the Middle East) never picked up the kitniyot tradition. So those Jews, and most Israeli’s today, will happily eat rice, beans, etc. during Passover.
But my own family lineage might best be described as ‘Eastern European mutt.’ So I have strong memories of, as a child, grocery shopping with my mother for Passover, buying the yellow-capped ‘kosher for passover’ Coca Cola (made using sugar rather than corn syrup), or ruling out the slew of canned and processed foods made with soy lecithin as a stabilizer.
These days, I’d class myself as part of the Reconstructionist Jewish movement. I’m somewhere between atheist and agnostic, so I observe Passover, but not because I believe there’s a big guy with a beard up in the sky who shakes his fist if I eat bread. But I do still very much value Judaism, as a source of tradition, wisdom, ritual, and community. As Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism explained a century back, one way to make sense of Judaism is as “the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people,” a quest to find ways of living that reveal holiness and godliness in the world, and one that gives tradition “a vote, not a veto in that quest.”
So, up until now, I’ve always observed Passover by avoiding any non-matzah use of the five grains, but also by avoiding kitniyot, too. If the whole point is to honor Passover tradition, and the prohibition against kitniyot is part of that tradition in my family, that seemed as good an argument as any to stick with it.
Still, one thing that I’ve long appreciated about Judaism is that’s it’s a religion based on questioning, analysis, and interpretation. The word Israel itself means literally “he who wrestles with god,” and the centuries of rabbinical writing encapsulated in the Talmud and other works chronicle the thoughtful and rigorous undertaking of that wrestling match.
To that end, this year, I carefully studied up on two recent decisions by Conservative Judaism’s governing Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, and a similar opinion from the Israeli orthodox rabbi David Bar-Hayim. All of which, surprisingly, made for pretty interesting reading.
The rabbis of the Talmud, the group that came up with the first ‘fence’ (of not eating anything but matzah made of the five grains), actually specifically considered kitniyot in about a half-dozen instances, and decided it’s fine to eat during Passover.
A thousand years later, when the custom of avoiding kitniyot first appeared, the rabbis of the time mention it only to say it was a bad idea. They describe it as “mistaken,” “foolish,” and “baseless,” which is about as harsh as language gets in talmudic debate.
So the question becomes: if it contravenes the Talmud, and the contemporary authorities at the time it was instituted though it was stupid, should we still keep up the custom for the sake of tradition?
Fortunately, the rabbis of Talmud gave some guidelines there, too:
First, they explain that all customs should have a rational basis in Torah. If you start observing a baseless custom, they warn, then people might start to assume all the other, more carefully reasoned customs are baseless, too. Thus, we should discard any custom, like avoiding kitniyot, that has no good explanation, especially when it directly contravenes more thorough earlier consideration.
Second, we should discard any custom that’s a ‘humra yethera,’ an unnecessary stringency, lest we reduce the joy of the holiday it’s meant to help celebrate, or emphasize the insignificant (avoiding rice and beans) over the significant (avoiding the five kinds of prohibited grain) aspects of the holiday.
Third, we should discard any custom that causes ‘hefsed merubeh,’ substantial monetary loss for the poor, much as prohibiting inexpensive kitniyot forces people to buy more expensive matzah, fish, and meat for the same calories.
All of which is to say, even for those (like me) who keep kosher for Passover for the sake of tradition should be willing to drop the specific prohibition of kitniyot.
And now I’m off to eat some rice.