To eat or not to eat Kitniyot this Passover

Growing up, my family was quite good at keeping Passover. We had matzah of all types: plain matzah, whole wheat matzah, egg matzah, and onion matzah. We ate matzah plain, with cream cheese, as pizza and lasagna. Matzah noodles, chocolate-covered matzah, and of course, those infamous matzah bagels— the ones that could anchor a 30-foot yacht.

By the end of the festival, we were ready for some variety in our diet. Definitely some bread, but also, rice, legumes, peanut butter, and popcorn.

As Ashkenazi Jews, not only did we not eat anything considered to be chameitz (potentially leavened), we also avoided anything that could be connected with chameitz: kitniyot. Kitniyot, permitted by Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews but forbidden by Ashkenazim, translates as ‘legumes’ but also includes, for the purposes of avoidance on Pesach, grains, seeds, and in some communities, any other food whose name includes the word ‘bean.’

How silly that we Ashkenazim avoid something that could never become bread. But this is the Ashkenazi custom in which so many of us have engaged for more than 700 years. Why change?

Lately, there has been much conversation in Liberal Jewish circles about whether or not to permit Kitniyot for Ashkenazi Jews. Though many have already made the jump, I have been a holdout, reluctant to give up the custom of my childhood.

Yes, I have wanted to switch for a long time and enjoy some hummus with my matzah, but I couldn’t find religious justification. Every time I thought long and hard, I concluded that switching would be out of whim, desire, and convenience, and not because I believed I had found religious justification.

None of the religious arguments presented to me were strong enough to make me change. Some said that in a time where we Reform Jews make decisions about our practices, we ought to be able to choose between Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi. That didn’t hold water for me though, because to me, ‘Ashkenazi,’ ‘Sephardic,’ and ‘Mizrahi’ are not categories of religious practice; they are categories of genealogical heritage. Being born into one, I cannot simply choose to be in another and take on its customs. Others have argued that since so many eat according to Sephardic/Mizrahi customs in Israel over Pesach, to partake from kitniyot would add a Zionist element to our festival. But to me, adding a flavor of Zionism while good is not enough to justify tossing out such an old tradition.

And in addition to these arguments not being convincing enough for me, I add to the table the familiarity of certain practices. Refraining from eating kitniyot is what I have done for decades of Pesach observance, as have my parents, and their parents before. Changing and eschewing this practice is a significant break from my own traditions.

But, I am ready now to move to Kitniyot. My family will enjoy rice, lentils, peanuts, and chickpeas this Pesach.

Why change now? I think that I’ve lived far enough from home and been developing my own Jewish practices for long enough that my Jewish logical thinking is now outweighing nostalgia and sentiment. Certainly not in every case— just in those that require arduous actions, like unnecessarily heavy dietary restrictions. Moreover, I have been waiting for a better argument all these years, and this better argument has arrived in the form of a teshuvah from the Rabbinical Assembly.

There are five points in the argument that have won me over. They are:

  1. JEWISH LAW: There is no law in Judaism, nor has there ever been one, that considers kitniyot in any way to be chameitz, and chameitz is what is forbidden on the holiday. This is to the point where it’s totally acceptable for an Ashkenazi Jew to eat on the Passover dishes of Sephardic Jews, even if these dishes have been in recent contact with rice or millet or corn.
  2. HEALTH AND QUALITY OF LIFE: We have learned that eating nothing but simple starch and meat is really unhealthy and not particularly environmentally friendly. For vegetarians, there is very little that is healthy to eat on Passover if keeping a Pesach that avoids kitniyot. Pesach is supposed to be a holiday of life, spring, and freedom. Not clogging and bloating.
  3. FINANCIAL ACCESSIBILITY: Kosher for Pesach ingredients are expensive, and kosher meat even more. Pesach is not meant to be a holiday for the rich, nor is it meant to render anyone broke. Allowing beans and legumes at meals allows folks to keep the holiday while eating well and still staying within budgets.
  4. MAKING PASSOVER HARDER THAN IT NEEDS TO BE TO BE PIOUS: Why? Again, this is meant to be a festival of freedom and joy, accessible to all.
  5. NOT CHANGING SIMPLY FOR THE SAKE OF NOT CHANGING IS NO REASON: This is the only remaining reason for avoiding kitniyot at the end of the T’shuvah, and they rule (appropriately) that this reason alone is just not good enough.

This Pesach, I will celebrate with stuffed grape leaves, rice pilaf, hummus, lentil soup, and popcorn. And of course, matzah balls, gefilte fish, and brisket.

A Helpful Guide for Kosher L’Pesach Eating

  • The five sources of chameitz and matzah are: Wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. Make sure that any time you are consuming these, it is in the form of matzah or matzah meal, and it is certified kosher for Pesach.
  • Kitniyot include all legumes including such items as lentils, peas, beans, and chickpeas. Peanuts are welcome, as is corn, rice, and millet.
  • Quinoa has been acceptable for everyone for a couple of years.
  • When purchasing processed foods, the only guarantee that they have not come into contact with chameitz is if they are certified kosher for pesach. General kosher certification guarantees nothing in connection to Passover. Processed foods means that ingredients or chemicals or enzymes etc. have been added to the food product in order to have it ready for you at the supermarket.
    • For example:
      • Canned beans are at risk of having chameitz, as different ingredients are sometimes used as part of the canning process.
      • Frozen corn, as long as it is clear that nothing else is in the bag, is fine without certification.
      • Regular coffee beans are fine without certification, as they are roasted without additives. Flavored coffee on the other hand, is filed with unknowns.
      • Tofu is processed, and needs to be certified.
      • Extra virgin olive oil is pressed, and does not need to be.
  • Dried kitniyot in bulk may be used, but make sure to clean and sort them to ensure that there is no chameitz mixed in.

Of course, if you keep kosher throughout the year and insist on your ingredients being labeled kosher, make sure to keep that in mind with your ingredient purchases. Where I mention that you don’t need certification, you will still want your basic stamp of approval from a kosher establishment.

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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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