It is Passover, and as Jews around the world gather together to commemorate our redemption from Egypt, a new and more dubious tradition associated with the festival appears to be taking root.
Indeed, with each passing year, it seems that the murmurings and complaints about the Ashkenazi custom to refrain from eating kitniyot (legumes) during the holiday grow more vocal.
Some observers deride the practice as outdated and archaic, pointing out that legumes cannot become hametz, which the Torah prohibits on Passover. Others bemoan the sheer inconvenience as they are forced to scour through the fine print on various food packages to ensure that the contents do not violate the prohibition.
As anyone with children can attest, one of the holiday’s most
exasperating challenges is trying to explain to a preteen why he or she
cannot eat his or her favorite legume-based snack even though the
wrapper boldly declares it to be “kosher for Passover.”
annual “Battle of the Bamba” has worn down many a willful parent, and
even led some Ashkenazi olim to throw up the white flag and toss aside
the custom altogether.
BUT AS complicated and inconvenient as it might be, I for one have no intention of giving in, and neither I think should you.
Simply put, the ban on kitniyot
has gotten a raw deal. And while a newspaper column is hardly the ideal
venue for exploring the complexities of the issue, here is a brief
defense of this ancient practice. To begin with, we don’t know for sure
when the prohibition against kitniyot
on Passover originated, but we do know that it dates back at least 800
years. Scholars say that the earliest source to mention it is the Sefer
Mitzvot Katan, which was written in the 13th century by Rabbi Yitzhak
of Courville. It appears, then, that the custom goes back to the geonic
In the Shulhan Aruch, the Sephardi sage Rabbi Yosef Caro permitted the consumption of kitniyot
on Passover, while the Ashkenazi Rabbi Moshe Isserles upheld the ban (Orach Chaim 453).
through the centuries, the custom had its detractors, including great
rabbis such as the Tur and Rabbi Ya’acov Emden. But the practice took
hold, and was accepted by Ashkenazi Jewry. Among the reasons given were
grown in proximity to the grains used to make bread, such as wheat,
oats and barley, and therefore they were frequently mixed together
In addition, raw and processed kitniyot
could and often were confused with these other grains. As a result,
people might unintentionally find themselves eating hametz, on
Passover, so to forestall this possibility, kitniyot
opponents of the custom assert that such worries are a thing of the
past now that we employ more modern agricultural and manufacturing
techniques. Moreover, they suggest, no one is likely to fall victim to
such confusion, so why not just do away with this headache once and for
Needless to say, uprooting a practice that is centuries-old
is not something that should be done lightly or capriciously. It would
be a mistake to discard the weight of history and tradition simply to
make our shopping experience at the supermarket slightly more expedient.
who so effortlessly wish to dispose of the ban are not giving tradition
its due. The preservation of customs and community practices has always
played a central role in the transmission of Jewishness, and our
survival as a people can be traced to our stubborn insistence on
maintaining the ways of our ancestors.
IT WAS Maimonides who
noted in the Mishneh Torah that the verse in Deuteronomy (17:11) which
instructs us not to “deviate from anything they tell you right or left”
embraces the decrees and customs passed down to us by previous
And former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who permits the consumption of kitniyot
on Passover, nonetheless ruled last year that Ashkenazim cannot forgo
the practice (Ynet, March 15, 2009). “Everyone has their customs,” he
said, adding that “those who instituted this were great men. Shall we
therefore concede their customs?”
But if you still remain unconvinced, consider the following.
The word kitniyot comes from the word katan
or small. For some, this might suggest a pettiness of sorts, a
maddening attention to detail and minutiae which seems out of place in
our goal-oriented, fast-changing world. But we all know that it is the
details which often make all the difference, whether in our own daily
lives or that of the nation. And Jewish practice is built on attention
to the finer points, on the intricacies and nuances that characterize
The ban on kitniyot
underlines this crucial point. It draws our attention to the subtleties
of our existence by reminding us of the need to keep our guard up, even
when it comes to the “small” things in life such as barley or beans. In
this way, I think, it helps us to keep things in their proper
Humphrey Bogart, of all people, seemed to recognize this in one of the
most famous cinematic references to legumes on record. At the end of Casablanca
as he prepares to say farewell to Ingrid Bergman, he memorably
declares, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see
that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of
beans in this crazy world.”
Sure enough, we live in a culture where those who tear down tradition
are often celebrated far more raucously than those who choose to uphold
it. But when I check my labels this Passover and scrupulously avoid
just like my
ancestors, all that fades from view. For thanks to their fidelity to
tradition and their determination to live as Jews, that “hill of beans”
takes on a whole new and much deeper meaning.