Sunday, 5 April 2009

To Bean or Not to Bean? Rice is the Question.

I promised you all that I would engage in a post about the consumption of kitniyot before the Pesach holiday begins tomorrow evening. Given the fact that I am consumed with cooking and other seder preparations, I will attempt to do this with as much brevity as I can possibly muster. The eating of kitniyot has become one of the most polarizing issues surrounding the celebration of Pesach. It is so contentious in fact, that most Jews cannot even agree on an appropriate translation or definition of the actual word. From Rabbi Richard J. Israel:
In general, kitniot are those small (kitniot - from katan) seeds or beans which look a little like grains and which need to be cooked to be eaten. Though frequently translated as legumes, aside from peas and peanuts, they are NOT legumes. And some legumes, like alfalfa leaves which can be used for salad, ARE NOT kitniot. Legumes are plants whose root nodules make nitrogen. Since "teensy-weensies" or "tinies" are not translations that are very likely to make it into ordinary English parlance, the most appropriate translation for kitniot, it seems to me, is kitniot.
At Pesach, all Jews are to refrain from the eating of chametz(leaven) and the Torah is quite explicit as to which grains are to be included in this category. From the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR):
"It is a mitzvah to abstain from eating leaven (Chametz) during the entire seven days of Pesach."[2] By "chametz", the tradition means those grains from which matzah may be baked: wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt.[3] No other foodstuffs are regarded as chametz.
It has also become customary for Ashkenazi Jews to adhere to a prohibition on rice, corn, seeds and legumes in a somewhat misguided attempt (my opinion) to expand the observance of the festival and build fences around the Torah to impose safeguards for the public for their own chametz protection. In other words, let's assume that the people are so stupid as to not know what they are or are not eating, that they require salvation from the evil consumption. In a word, horseshit. More from Rabbi Israel: 
By the 18th century a halachist like the Korban Nathaniel (you have never heard of him) writes that there is no need to outlaw these cooked products just because they may appear similar to other cooked products which are actually chametz. One may, for example, use flour made from lentils, because it cannot become chametz, and there is no need to worry that people will confuse it with other flour which is really chametz. However, Ashkenazic (though not Sephardic) Jews have accepted a great stringency regarding these products, despite the fact that they are not chametz, and despite the permissibility of these items documented by earlier sources. The reason for the prohibition is based on a gezeirah, a preventive decree, from Ashkenazic rabbinical authorities.

The familiar and relatively late explanation for this gezeirah goes exactly contrary to what the Korban Nathaniel says. The gezeirah was justified on the grounds that people can too easily confuse a product cooked with kitniyot, with a similar product cooked with one of the five grains, and if the kitniyot product is allowed, one may come to allow a grain product, which is really chametz, as well. Moreover, kitniyot are similar to the five grains in other ways too, including the fact that some people make bread out of kitniyot as they do from the five grains, and people who are not knowledgeable may end up making a mistake and eat real chametz.
The prohibition on kitnityot runs contrary to the opinions of every single Talmudic and Mishnaic sage with the exception of one, (R. Yochanan be Nuri, Pesahim 35a) and is in direct contradiction to the decision in the Babylonian Talmud. (Pesahim 114b) This responsa is from the Conservative rabbinate in Israel. 
This custom is mentioned for the first time in France and Provence in the beginning of the thirteenth century by R. Asher of Lunel, R. Samuel of Falaise, and R. Peretz of Corbeil - from there it spread to various countries and the list of prohibited foods continued to expand. Nevertheless, the reason for the custom was unknown and as a result many sages invented at least eleven different explanations for the custom. As a result, R. Samuel of Falaise, one of the first to mention it, referred to it as a "mistaken custom" and R. Yerucham called it a "foolish custom".

This craziness has been perpetuated for centuries and has continued to this day. The reason that my Ashkenazi relatives in Poland ate potatoes instead of corn or rice at Pesach, is simply because of supply. Whoever heard of sushi in the shtetl? Rice and corn are foods that were unknown to my ancestors in the part of the world that they resided. When they did come in contact with these foreign substances, their rebbes reflexively banned them from consumption at Pesach as much out of ignorance as anything thing else. In my neighbourhood, which I have lovingly referred to as the "North Jewish Ghetto", the cost of observing the holiday in a kitniyot-free environment has become astronomical. It is not unheard of nor is it unusual to hear stories of families spending upwards of $2000.00 on Pesach preparations. The purchasing of products like kosher for Pesach Coke and ketchup (the high fructose corn syrup in these products has labelled them kitniyot!) has become a strange game of "Keeping as Kosher as the Steinbergs". There was even a midnight madness sale at our resident grocery store this past Saturday evening. The image of observant men and women fighting over the last box of matzah meal is one to behold. Once again from the Conservative responsa in Israel: 
Therefore, the main halakhic question in this case is whether it is permissible to do away with a mistaken or foolish custom. Many rabbinic authorities have ruled that it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to do away with this type of "foolish custom" (R. Abin in Yerushalmi Pesahim, Maimonides, the Rosh, the Ribash, and many others). Furthermore, there are many good reasons to do away with this "foolish custom": a) It detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods; b) It 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"; c) It emphasizes the insignificant (legumes) and ignores the significant (hametz, which is forbidden from the five kinds of grain); d) It causes people to scoff at the commandments in general and at the prohibition of hametz in particular - if this custom has no purpose and is observed, then there is no reason to observe other commandments; e) Finally, it causes unnecessary divisions between Israel's different ethnic groups. On the other hand, there is only one reason to observe this custom: the desire to preserve an old custom. Obviously, this desire does not override all that was mentioned above. Therefore, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim are permitted to eat legumes and rice on Pesah without fear of transgressing any prohibition.
It seems to me that the only reason to continue the practice of forbidding the consumption of kitniyot is tradition; Bubby didn't eat corn so we don't eat corn, and while I certainly think that this should always be a matter of personal conviction, I cannot abide. I need to feel that religious practice has some basis in logic and law in order for it to remain a religious practice in my world. The spirit and the celebration of Pesach is enhanced and maintained by the prohibition of the chametz. Anything else must be defined, in my opinion, as a religious fiction and cannot be taken seriously. My Passover includes rice and corn. I will give the final word to the CCAR
We do not accept the orthodox argument that a customary observance, once widely adopted, can never be annulled. This notion is questionable, in general, as a matter of halakhah,[19] especially when the observance is based upon a mistaken interpretation of the law.[20] In our specific case, moreover, there is absolutely no evidence that this customary prohibition was ever ratified by rabbinic decree or accepted as binding in the form of a vow. Had a decree or a vow existed, after all, those authorities who criticized the practice down to the eighteenth century would never have spoken so bluntly against it. We think, rather, that some rabbis resort to these arguments in order to support practices and customs whose original purpose--if there ever was a legitimate original purpose--no longer holds. When a religious practice has outlived its purpose, when its retention is perceived by the community as unnecessary and burdensome, Reform Judaism affirms the right of the observant community to alter or annul that practice in favor of a new standard which better expresses our understanding of Torah and tradition and the religious sensibilities of our age.

Chag Sameach to all observe and may your time with family and friends be sweet and peaceful.


  1. We decided to "go Separdic" last year, and the experience was interesting. Our Pesach has almost always included legumes and the grain we consider a vegetable (corn), but hadn't included rice until last year (or popcorn, because it's puffy). So, last year, we substituted Rice Krispies for matzah for breakfast, and I bought a pack of rice crackers (the big puffy Quaker kind). We had rice with meals.

    The result? Sometimes logic (yes, avoiding rice has no real underpinning) loses to emotion. While the boys were comfortable, I was less so, especially at breakfast. Eating a rice cereal just seemed too much like eating a chametzy cereal. It didn't make me consider my food choices enough in light of the holiday. So this year, my bottom line is, if it feels chametzy, I'm not doing it.
    And, since you have made your feeling about matzah bagels quite clear, let me stress that, in our house, matzah buns are a must. Not because they masquerade as bread (nobody with intact taste buds or a texture-sensing tongue could make that mistake), but because they're a holiday treat. Nothing chametzy about them.

  2. I am a firm believer that one should do that which feels comfortable. The nature of a progressive Judaism is the making of informed choices for the individual observance. For me and mine, matzah bagels and buns do not fit with our holiday practice, but if it works for you, by all means. I wonder if the feeling of chametz that you experience with the rice is a product of tradition. We tend to hang on tightly to our family histories. However you choose to celebrate, may it happy, healthy and full of fun and family.

  3. I think the rice thing has something to do with family tradition, and a whole lot more with its application - we can eat Noodle Delight - all rice-based noodles - and this definitely feels like my moral equivalent of your feeling about matza bagels!
    Enjoy your Pesach!

  4. I first learned about kitniyot in college, and the explanation the rabbi gave was that these "small things" were often carried in the same sacks that would at other times have carried grains (which are also small things), and thereby a grain of wheat might become mixed in with the sack of lentils, thereby contaminating the entire bushel. However, if the kitniyot were transformed into another form (e.g. corn oil, peanut butter) before Pesach, it was OK to consume. There were, of course, those who were stricter and avoided all kitniyot anyway.

    The logic I would use is that corn is structurally a grain, is closely related to all other grains, and is considered a grain in our society at large; therefore it is a grain and should be considered chometz. Rice is a bit more of a question because we call it a grain and use it as a grain, but it grows differently than the other grains.

    An alternate determination might be the natural presence of gluten in flour made only from that plant, as gluten is a key indicator of whether or not a "bread" made from that flour will rise without the addition of yeast.