A defense of a kitniyot-free Passover - opinion

Ashkenazi Jews have a tradition of not eating kitniyot (legumes) over Passover.

A ‘KOSHER FOR Passover’ poster at a stand in Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A ‘KOSHER FOR Passover’ poster at a stand in Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Rarely are the streets and people of Israel more energetic and alive than in the weeks leading up to Passover. The main staples of the holiday, matzot and wine, are stacked from floor to ceiling in all supermarkets and grocery stores, goblets and cups in all sizes and materials are displayed in store windows and online points of sales, and haggadot in every conceivable format and flavor become available (American baby boomers will nod in understanding when I say that I’ve yet to find one with the logo of Maxwell House Coffee). Eavesdroppers will likely overhear squabbles taking place over seder guests, menus and Hol Hamoed activities, and, of course, we become consumed with the double-K that for many are the main focus of the holiday: kashering and kitniyot.

The less said about the former the better. Despite rabbinical verification that dust and smudges are not hametz, areas in which it is highly unlikely if not impossible that discarded rolls or cereal crumbs will be found are nonetheless vacuumed, polished or scrubbed. Time that could be spent on more worthwhile activities is devoted to cleaning out medicine cabinets, linen closets, laundry detergent shelves and cupboards.

Although, it wouldn’t be Passover without the annual debate over the Ashkenaz custom of refraining from the consumption of kitniyot. While the complications associated with kitniyot are not unique to Israel, the debate is far less pronounced in, for example, the United States. There, products certified as being kosher for Passover by the major kashrut organizations are for the most part kitniyot free, so the practice surrounding this ancient custom is not particularly high on the agenda.

Here though, the situation is dramatically different. By now, much has already been broadcast or written in multiple languages about the origin of the custom, and why it is no longer relevant and should be done away with. Truth be told, the arguments are sound and rational. Provided, that is, if logic alone is applied to the issue. However, in matters pertaining to the laws and customs of religion, logic rarely has any bearing.

Personally, I find it hard to understand the great difficulty of doing without rice, beans or corn for seven days. To the best of my knowledge, nobody whose roots extend to Lithuania, Galicia or Poland are at risk of growing ill from malnutrition from a legume-free diet for a week. Those with memories as long as mine will easily remember when virtually nothing other than eggs and potatoes were eaten during the week of Passover, complemented by a few candy products manufactured by the now gone Barton’s confectioners (distributors of the “Passover chocolate of choice”).

 A WOMAN cleans for Passover. Variety and not homogeneity is what makes Israel the special place it is.  (credit: RACHAEL CERROTTI/FLASH90)
A WOMAN cleans for Passover. Variety and not homogeneity is what makes Israel the special place it is. (credit: RACHAEL CERROTTI/FLASH90)

Today, supermarkets in major Jewish centers around the world offer a wide variety of kitniyot-free products, many of them resembling the taste and texture of that which is eaten during the other fifty-one weeks of the year. The absence of kitniyot is by no means missed and to be frank, hummus smeared on matzah is not particularly appealing. Not in comparison to schmaltz, anyway.

In Israel, kitniyot-based products are manufactured and routinely certified as Kosher for Passover, which makes the week more than a little confusing for Ashkenazim. Unfortunately, very little on the shelves or in the refrigerator can be taken for granted. Consequently. many packaged products will state whether or not kitniyot are among the ingredients, so it’s not at all unusual to bring a magnifying glass along with a shopping list when doing Passover shopping. Moreover, Kashrut certifications from rabbinical organizations throughout the country decorate the supermarket walls specifying which Kosher for Passover products are made with kitniyot and which are not, making routine shopping ventures both daunting and bewildering. It makes one wonder if the escape from Egypt was worth the effort.

I’M PREPARED to accept these as minor disruptions. What is particularly aggravating are the repeated calls to do away with this seemingly pointless custom together with demands that Ashkenazim be given an authoritative okay to eat kitniyot during Passover. Indeed, the use of kitniyot or their derivatives have been given heterim (a leniency or loophole) by some Ashkenazi rabbis in Israel. However, at this point this permitted leniency is not yet very widespread, so the annual scavenger hunt for kitniyot-free mayonnaise, margarine, cookies and other basics remains unchanged. A nationally accepted modification to the prevailing custom, I suspect, will not be taking place any time soon. Which as far as I’m concerned is perfectly fine.

The haredim as well as many members of the Modern Orthodox community would scoff if the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel was to state that kitniyot are no longer forbidden to Ashkenazim. It would be, for the most part, thought of as folly. Food manufacturers would continue to identify which of their products are kitniyot-free and many Israeli hotels would still advertise that the cuisine included in their Passover packages is suitable for Ashkenazim. Better the chief rabbi should refrain from making such a declaration than to have his ruling blatantly ignored.

However, discarding customs and ancient traditions may very well lead to a dangerously slippery slope. While there are lines of demarcation between customs and actual laws, care must be taken to prevent those lines from becoming blurry or even invisible. Placing one longstanding custom into the periphery makes it easier to do so with others and from there it’s no more than a short step to religious chaos. Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof put it well: “Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

Achieving unity among the Jewish people, too, has been regularly raised as a reason for abolishing the division of the community caused by kitniyot, the argument being that in Israel there are no Ashkenazim or Sephardim – we are all Israeli Jews. While this idea sounds nice, it is nothing more than wishful thinking. Israel has never been a melting pot. Those of us that have been arriving here for the last one-hundred-plus years brought over the customs of our respective origins, and there were never any demands to abandon specific cultural or geographical idiosyncrasies. If anything, variety and not homogeneity is what makes Israel the special place it is; customs such as forbidding the consumption of kitniyot for Ashkenazim during Passover is very much a part of the Israeli tapestry.

To be sure, there are a number of other customs that differentiate the Ashkenazim from the Sephardim. The former, for example, recite the Yizkor prayer four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Simhat Torah, Passover and Shavuot, in remembrance of loved ones who have passed on; the latter do not have this prayer as part of their liturgy. The Sephardim do not mix fish and dairy products together as a general rule, but Ashkenazim would surely suffer without the possibility of creamed pickled herring or lox and cream cheese spread.

There are others, but the point is perfectly clear: We’ve managed to respect and make room for the various customs that identify and define who we are. There’s no reason to make an exception for the Ashkenazi prohibition of kitniyot during Passover. Despite the hassle and confusion, we’ll all make it through the week. Let’s hope that this is indeed the worst problem we ever have to face.

The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting non-profit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.