Liberating Passover food

If you live in Israel and are careful to avoid eating ‘kitniyot’ on Passover, Sharona Halickman, founder and director of Torat Reva Yerushalayim, has good news for you.

The Resnick childen, who have celiac disease, shop for Passover food (photo credit: YAEL RESNICK)
The Resnick childen, who have celiac disease, shop for Passover food
(photo credit: YAEL RESNICK)
If you’re from an Ashkenazi Jewish background, you’re probably familiar with the custom of avoiding kitniyot on Passover. What are kitniyot? Technically, the word means legumes. However, according to Sharona Halickman, there are foods that are not legumes and are considered kitniyot and foods that are legumes and are not considered kitniyot.
Halickman, who served as the first congregational intern and the first madricha ruhanit (spiritual mentor) for Rabbi Avi Weiss at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York from 1997 until her family’s aliya in 2004, is on a quest to teach Ashkenazi Jews that there is ample rabbinic opinion to support including many more foods on their Passover table than they might be allowing themselves to eat now.
Passover food manufacturers in Israel label foods “Kosher for Passover only for those who eat kitniyot” even if they have only the smallest amount of an ingredient that could be considered kitniyot by the strictest interpretation. Halickman asserts that this is an unnecessarily stringent standard for most Ashkenazim.
Originally, anything that could be cooked or baked in way that resembled the forbidden grains of wheat, barley, oat, spelt or rye was considered kitniyot. It’s important to emphasize that kitniyot are not considered hametz (the category of food that all authorities agree is biblically prohibited on Passover).
Halickman, who lives in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood with her husband and three sons, teaches that the first time the custom to avoid kitniyot on Passover appeared anywhere in rabbinic literature was in 13th-century France.
Rabbi Yosef Karo and Rabbi Moshe Isserles, both of whom who were major rabbinic authorities in the 16th century, identified a total of eight foods – rice, buckwheat, millet, beans, lentils, sesame seeds, peas and mustard – as kitniyot.
Foods that are commonly thought of as kitniyot today were not known at the time and were thus not included in the original ban. For example, sweetcorn was not introduced in Europe until the 17th century.
So sweetcorn was not considered kitniyot even as recently as the early 20th century when the Mishna Brura, an important book of Jewish law, codified the list of eight foods that Karo and Isserles specified.
“This was the official list at that time,” said Halickman.
“Anything that came out after that would not be considered the original kitniyot.”
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest Jewish legal authorities of the 20th century, died in 1986 and is buried on Har Hamenuhot in Jerusalem. Although Rabbi Feinstein noted that some have a local custom to be stricter, he ruled that the custom of not eating kitniyot applies only to foods that were generally accepted as kitniyot when the custom began.
In other words, if a food wasn’t on the original list of eight, it isn’t considered kitniyot and is completely permissible for Ashkenazim to eat on Passover.
Despite this ruling, authorities at contemporary kashrut organizations such as the Baltimore-based Star K and the Orthodox Union have added 55 new foods to the originally prohibited eight. These foods, such as peanuts, soy, quinoa, sweetcorn, string beans, canola oil, lecithin and cottonseed oil, have been included in the kitniyot ban because of their resemblance to the original eight.
Halickman says these additional restrictions make eating on Passover unnecessarily difficult for those who want to maintain the custom of avoiding kitniyot.
“It’s easier to become stricter. It’s hard to say we made a mistake and take it back. Going according to the strictest opinion, it’s hard for them to go back on now and be lenient.”
Halickman recommends that Ashkenazim speak to their rabbi first, and then go to the grocery store armed with a definitive list of what ingredients are and are not considered kitniyot, according to the opinion of their personal rabbi.
With such a list in hand, it isn’t necessary for Ashkenazim living in Israel to automatically avoid all products labeled “Kosher for Passover only for those who eat kitniyot.”
Nor is it necessary for Ashkenazim to pay a premium for expensive Passover foods imported from the United States because they think they have no other choices.
Asked if there is a list of which foods might be marked kitniyot but still be acceptable for Ashkenazim to eat, Halickman said, “It changes every year. You have to go to the grocery store with a magnifying glass and actually read the ingredients on each product. It’s a do-it-yourself thing. In the end of the day, the canola-oil margarine is fine. You just have to know how to read it.”
In addition to shopping for groceries, Halickman said that with a little more kitniyot education, “We can still go to a restaurant. You can eat food made with pots and pans that cook kitniyot. Knowing about this opens up more doors and makes you feel a lot more comfortable with the holiday without eating rice, or beans or any of those things.
“Some people have certain traditions and you don’t mess with those traditions. A lot of people think it’s like an all-or-nothing thing, but there is a middle ground.
Without transgressing any kitniyot issues, you can eat a whole lot more than you think you can,” she stated.
A SECOND liberating aspect of kosher-for-Passover foods is relevant for people with sensitivity to gluten or who have celiac disease and avoid gluten in their diets.
Gittel Levin of Ma’aleh Adumim has a family member who eats gluten-free all year round. “Gluten is the protein that is in wheat,” Levin explained. “Anything made with potato starch is automatically gluten-free. Many of these products are only made on Passover.”
During the intermediate days of Passover and immediately after the festival ends, Levin, like many who need to serve gluten-free foods all year long, stock up on kosher-for-Passover cake mixes, cereals, soup nuts, kugels, crumbs for making schnitzel, cookies, premade cakes, noodles and pasta products.
“We wait until after Passover when it’s all on sale. That’s stock-up time! All these expensive Passover cakes are half-price. The stores always have too much.”
Potato starch is another basic item that Levin uses to cook with during the year, but it’s only available at Passover time. She stocks up and stores all these naturally gluten-free groceries in her pantry for year-round use.
Although there are more and more gluten-free products available in regular grocery stores and specialty shops, Levin claimed, “The gluten-free stuff made on Passover is better than the gluten-free stuff that’s available all year.”
Those following a gluten-free diet use oat matza, which Levin called “crazy expensive” instead of wheat matza during the week of Passover.
Many hotels and restaurants that serve kosher-for-Passover meals also open up a larger world of opportunities for gluten-free eaters. Yael Resnick of Ginot Shomron, whose children have celiac disease, commented, “We are strictly gluten-free and have a great time on Passover in Israel – ordering pizza and eating out when the whole year we can’t. It’s [truly] a redemption for us!”