Rice and beans for Ashkenazi Jews on Passover?


Seder tables in Conservative Jewish homes may look different this Passover, and it’s not because of a new popular cookbook or changes to the haggadah

It’s because the Conservative movement has officially decided that kitniyot — which include common foods such as rice, corn and beans — are now permitted for Ashkenazi Jews on Passover, overruling about seven centuries of Ashkenazi custom that banned those foods. The Passover prohibition persisted even though all Jewish legal authorities agree that kitniyot are not chametz, which is why so many other Jews, including Reform and Israeli Conservative Jews, as well as Orthodox Sephardic Jews, eat them during the eight days of Passover. 

The technicalities of the new ruling can be a bit confusing, but they’re laid out by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) in a legal document titled “A Teshuvah Permitting Ashkenazim to Eat Kitniyot on Pesach” published in November. It removes all restrictions on kitniyot for Conservative Jews — restrictions that Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews will continue to follow.

The opinion, written by Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner of Baltimore and Rabbi Amy Levin of Bridgeport, Conn., was approved by the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly by a vote of 19-1. Its argument centers around three key points: First, that the custom of Ashkenazi Jews to not eat kitniyot on Passover is lacking in strong rational justification. Second, access to inexpensive foods like rice and beans reduces the high cost of observing a kosher Passover for American Jews. And third, for the increasing number of people who maintain vegan or gluten-free diets, rice, beans and other grains are important sources of nutrition.

A similar responsum written in Israel by Rabbi David Golinkin allows Ashkenazim to eat kitniyot on Passover; it was approved in 1989 by Israel’s Conservative movement. The Israeli responsa has now been translated to English and was voted on by the CJLS in December, passing 15-3. The Israeli responsa draws a similar conclusion, albeit through different reasoning.

Prohibitions against kitniyot are not based on Torah law or rabbinic law, but rather on Ashkenazi custom. About 700 years ago, rabbis in France began referring to a custom of some Jewish communities to avoid kitniyot, a label derived from the word katan (little), which includes rice, millet and legumes broadly, and beans, corn, peas, lentils and soybeans, more specifically. Everyone agrees that chametz — leaven derived from wheat, oats, spelt, rye and barley — is strictly prohibited on Passover. The custom to avoid kitniyot derived from two precautions: First, because kitniyot are sometimes grown in close vicinity to the five chametz grains, rabbinic authorities worried that chametz might mix with and accidentally contaminate otherwise kosher-for-Passover food. Rabbinic authorities also were concerned that Jews might confuse chametz with kitniyot, as they share some resemblance. 

Today, according to Orthodox law, the custom to avoid kitniyot on Passover is binding on Jews of Ashkenazi descent, regardless of where they live. But Sephardic Jews, whatever their denominations, do not follow this custom and enjoy the full range of kitniyot products throughout Passover, making Passover’s shopping experience and diet easier and more enjoyable. 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at American Jewish University and chairman of the CJLS, who eats fish but not meat, said that despite the ruling, his wife plans to continue to observe the custom, so there will be no kitniyot in their home during Passover. Dorff stressed that the Conservative movement’s change “should not be the occasion for looking down your nose, either at the people who do eat kitniyot or people who do not.”

One issue the teshuvah touches on, and which Dorff mentioned in the context of eating at other people’s homes on Passover, is that even under halachah, there is no issue with using kosher-for-Passover utensils that have come in contact with kitniyot, which is not true of Passover-kosher utensils that have come in contact with chametz.

“Kitniyot cannot become chametz,” the teshuvah says. 

Additionally, derivatives of kitniyot — such as rice oil — remain fully acceptable for Ashkenazim who continue to hold by the custom.

The teshuvah guides the reader through the historical rabbinic debate on the topic, highlighting those who believed in the custom, those who thought it stringent but nevertheless thought it should remain, and those who thought it was a mistake.

Rabbeinu Peretz, for example, wrote in the 13th century that there’s no doubt kitniyot is not chametz, but added, “Were we to permit kitniyot, [people] might come to substitute and permit [grain-based] porridge.” And while Peretz noted the Talmud allows rice on Passover, “This was specifically in their day, when all were fluent in the laws of prohibition and permission.”

But Jacob Emden, an 18th-century German-Jewish scholar known as Ya’avetz, wrote that his father, Tzvi Hirsch Ashkenazi, would “rant” against the custom of avoiding kitniyot, largely on the basis that they are “available cheaply and easily,” and that their exclusion forces Ashkenazi Jews to bake and consume more and more matzo, increasing the chance that they’ll inadvertently consume chametz. (In those days many families baked their own matzo, which requires sharp precision.)

Ya’avetz wrote that his father, also known as the Chacham Tzvi, awaited the day when scholars would abolish the custom but did not support doing so “without the agreement of the majority.”

But even with a majority agreement, the teshuvah notes, rabbinic authorities cited the opinion of Maimonides, perhaps the greatest rabbinic scholar in Jewish history, that “only a greater court than the originators” has the authority to reverse not just law, but custom, too.

In justifying its ruling, the Conservative responsa begins by casting doubt on the possibility of mixing chametz with kitniyot “in the present age when we purchase our flours, rice and beans in discrete packages, well-marked as to their content, under governmental supervision.” A footnote, though, does caution against buying in bulk on Passover from any grocers that dispense food from bins, such as in some natural food stores. 

While acknowledging the importance of maintaining customs, the teshuvah’s authors note that while some Jewish communities “insist upon dressing as did the Jews of Poland several centuries ago, in our community that has been allowed to change.”

The ultimate rationale behind the Conservative committee’s ruling comes down to the practicalities of economics and nutrition, and their belief that “resistance to change is the sole reason not to consider a change” in this custom.

With the growth in vegetarianism, the authors argue, beans, for example, “serve in the absence of meat as a significant source of protein.”

“It’s about time!” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple wrote in an email to the Journal when asked about his thoughts on the ruling. He said he understands “the force of custom,” but, as a vegetarian, he has been eating kitniyot over Passover for years.

“It was based on a misunderstanding and lack of information, so to my fellow kitniyot consumers, welcome to a Pesach no less kosher and much more nourishing,” Wolpe said.

“We now have many more people who are vegans, and we also have people who are known to have gluten allergies,” Dorff notes. “For them, what is permissible on Passover is much more restrictive than it is for the rest of us. Especially for vegans, there was really nothing to eat on Passover. There was really very little, if you do not allow kitniyot.”

“The positive mitzvah of joy on the holiday will not be well expressed on the depleted table of those who do not eat fish or meat, or even cheese and eggs,” responsa authors Reisner and Levin write, adding that the halachic aphorism that the Torah wants to protect the Jewish people’s money is relevant in increasing access to relatively inexpensive foods, like beans and rice, and thereby alleviating the financial pressures many Jews feel when shopping for expensive Passover products.

Rabbi Micah Peltz of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J., the lone holdout on the otherwise unanimous committee, said he doesn’t believe the decision to lift the restriction on kitniyot is justified by the teshuvah’s reasoning. Peltz said law and custom are changeable, but only when done to “address an ethical dissonance between halakha and the prevailing values of our generation,” which he believes is not the case here. He wrote this with four other rabbis in a January op-ed for the South Jersey Jewish Voice.

In an interview with the Journal on April 11, Peltz said he thinks the economic benefits of allowing kitniyot are limited, as they won’t replace the most expensive Passover food items and because many kitniyot products still require a special kosher-for-Passover certification. He said he could also foresee the ruling creating a division among Ashkenazi Jews, even as it may help bridge a divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

“Kitniyot is not law. It is tradition, and I think that’s something that’s very powerful for people, and I think by throwing off the tradition for everyone en masse, by making that statement, I think it does more harm than good,” Peltz said.

The Reform movement has never prohibited kitniyot. Rabbi Leora Kaye, program director for the Union for Reform Judaism, said the reasoning is simple: “Kitniyot is not chametz, and therefore there is no prohibition against eating kitniyot.” Like Dorff, though, she understands that avoiding kitniyot is an “integral piece” of how some Jews observe Passover.

Kosher-for-Passover-certified kitniyot products have become increasingly available in the United States over the past few years, particularly since the Orthodox Union announced in early 2013 that it would certify products with kitniyot that are kosher for Passover. In Los Angeles, some kosher grocers, such as Glatt Mart, Elat Market and Cambridge Farms, sell kitniyot products on Passover, while others, such as Western Kosher, do not.

Dorff said that, based on the preponderance of Passover kitniyot products available in stores in Israel, he expects they will become more and more common in the U.S., as well.

“If Israel is at all a model for us, my guess is that not only this year but in [future] years, there will be more and more of those things,” Dorff said. 

Rabbis expand the Passover menu — but will Conservative Jews bite?


On Passover, Lynne Sandler will be passing on the beans and rice.

Sandler, a member of Conservative Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, said she won’t take advantage of her movement’s ruling in December that permits eating a category of food called kitniyot that includes rice, beans and other legumes.

These foods have always been eaten by Sephardi Jews on Passover, but have banned by Ashkenazi rabbis since the 1200s.

“We won’t be doing anything different this year,” Sandler said. “We’ve lived our lives without it.”

But others are relieved by the lifting of the kitniyot ban by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. By dispensing with a custom whose roots in Jewish law are relatively recent as such things go, they argue, the ruling responds to modern concerns over nutrition, finances and even Jewish unity.

All three factors are weighed in the teshuvah, or ruling, which passed with 19 rabbis in favor, one opposed and two abstaining.

With many Jews complaining about the high cost of eating during Passover, and the lack of healthy packaged foods, the committee’s ruling referred to the “extremely inflated cost of products under Pesach supervision.”

It added: “Were kitniyot to be permitted, beans and rice could be served with vegetables and dairy to largely supplant the demand for other packaged products and more expensive sources of protein for those who chose to do so, an option that is significantly limited today.”

Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Maryland, a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, said the ruling is in line with long-standing Jewish law about protecting the consumer.

“The cost of everything is greater on Passover,” she said. “The ruling helps relieve that burden.”

There are also health issues, Grossman said.

“Passover foods are high in fat and cholesterol,” she said. “And meat is expensive and environmentally questionable [when produced] in bulk.” A less restrictive diet would help those with heart disease, Crohn’s disease or colitis, she added.

The eight-page ruling also discussed unity among the Jewish people.

“In Israel, we’re seeing a coming together of Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions,” Grossman said. “Pesachdik in Israel includes kitniyot.”

The Conservative movement in Israel has permitted eating kitniyot since 1989. Even some Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbis in Israel have been lenient with followers.

The Torah mentions five types of grain that can become leavened, or chametz, if they remain in water for more than 18 minutes: wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt. These grains are banned on Passover, except as matzah.

But why are kitniyot — rice, millet, beans, lentils and the like — banned, since they cannot become chametz?

A number of reasons arose in Ashkenazi communities in the 1200s. One is that rice and legumes are sometimes mixed with wheat; to avoid an accidental mixture, kitniyot was banned altogether.

“Another is if we allow kitniyot porridge, we will eat grain porridge because both are cooked in a pot,” Rabbi David Golinkin, a Conservative authority in Israel, wrote in a 2013 teshuvah. And if rice or bean flour can be baked into bread, someone might mistakenly think that it is all right to eat bread on Passover made from wheat or rye flour.

“None of these reasons appear cogent, however, in the present age when we purchase our flours, rice and beans in discrete packages, well-marked as to their content, under governmental supervision,” according to the Conservative ruling. “In such a marketplace there should be no concern of confusing a permission of kitniyot with one of grains and it should be eminently possible to prohibit one while permitting the other.”

Even before the ruling, the Conservative movement already permitted eating kitniyot for vegetarians and vegans, said Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

“But you have to consult a rabbi to make sure you’re eating kitniyot and not chametz,” he said. “Our daughter is a vegetarian, so we’re familiar with her eating kitniyot and using our Pesach utensils.”

Eating kitniyot on dishes and utensils set aside for Passover does not make the utensils — or the house — not kosher for Passover, Arian said.

In its ruling, the committee also pointed to “our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions [and] more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us.”

But some worry the ruling may make things look a lot less restrictive than they actually are.

Although U.S.-based Sephardic groups issue lists of kosher-for-Passover rice and frozen legumes, “my concern is that people will take this as permission to buy anything off the shelf, look at the ingredients, say that it looks OK and eat it,” Arian said. “But practically no processed kitniyot products are certified.”

A standard bag of rice, for example, needs to be checked for chametz before the holiday begins.

“I can’t imagine us actually doing that,” Arian said.

Sandler said that when she lived in Israel, she used to spread rice on a piece of paper to remove stones.

“I don’t know if I could even find chametz in it. It’s not worth the hassle,” Sandler said. “We can live without it for a week.”

Sharon Samber, a member of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., welcomed the loosening of the strict kitniyot rules.

“It makes life easier, and you need as much of that as you can on Passover,” she said.

The focus on the minutiae of the holiday often comes at the expense of Passover’s larger meaning, Samber said.

“I hope this helps us focus on the more meaningful parts of Passover — discussing what it means to be free and who isn’t free today,” she said.

For others, heeding the minutiae actually enhances the holiday.

“I will probably stick to tradition,” said Marcie Lerner, a member of Kehilat Shalom.

“Just like there are traditional Torah-mandated foods for Passover, there are familial and traditional foods that help keep heritage and memories alive. Also, old habits die hard.”

For now, memory may be the biggest barrier to bringing kitniyot back to the table.

“Look, if I don’t have those jelly fruit slices, it’s not Pesach,” Arian said. “The rest of the year they’re disgusting. So I can’t imagine sitting down with corn on the cob, but someone else might.”

David Holzel is the managing editor of the Washington Jewish Week.

This Week in Jewish Farming: Ode to corn


Before I get to this week’s blog post, I have to give (another) shout-out to my neighbor and custom farm tool designer Larry Giglio, who delivered this marvelous, custom-built tape roller to the farm this morning. It might not seem like the coolest thing ever, but if you’ve ever tried putting away drip tape for the season, trust me when I tell you this is a life saver.

OK, now on to the post …

Drive down the country roads near our farm and you’ll see towering fields of corn dominating the landscape this time of year. It’s not Nebraska, where you can drive for hours and see nothing but the upright stalks and silky tops of cornfields. But even in Connecticut, the scale of the corn crop can be breathtaking.

Corn has a bad rap in the sustainable farming community. The single-largest crop grown in the United States – some 84 million acres were harvested in 2011, according to the EPA, the vast majority genetically modified – corn is, perhaps irredeemably, associated with Big Ag and all its related perversities. Almost none of the farms where I’ve worked previously bothered with it, as if the plant itself were tarnished by association.

Which is a shame. Zea mays is one of North America’s great native crops, precious to indigenous peoples and the savior of the earliest European settlers during that mythic first Thanksgiving — or something like that. It’s fast growing, tolerant of diverse climates and incredibly versatile – as evidenced by the estimated 75 percent of grocery items that contain it (generally in some highly adulterated form).

When we started farming early this year, it never even occurred to me to grow corn. But seeing how easily all the other farmers in the area were getting these huge luscious sheaves made me reconsider.

I bought a couple hundred seeds of a variety called PayDirt. (When you know as little about a vegetable as I know about corn, choosing a variety based on its name seemed as good a reason as any). Our first effort was a total bust. I prepped five beds by hand and individually placed those few hundred seeds in the ground, perfectly timed in advance of a heavy rain, only to have them eaten by hawks that for some reason have decided our upper field is a great place to call home.

Undeterred, I rush-ordered more seeds and plunged them into trays in the greenhouse. As promised, they germinated quickly and grew fast. Transplanting them to the field was delayed by the busyness of midsummer, but we managed to get them in only slightly behind schedule. They haven’t grown quite as tall and robust as the neighbors’ corn, but when Fred and I pulled the first ears off last week and tasted that creamy sugary goodness, the nectar leaked from the corners of our smiling faces. When we need a boost during the workday — a common occurrence this time of year — a quick trip to the corn beds does the trick.

Yesterday, our CSA members got three ears of corn in their boxes, part of a nine-vegetable medley that may well be the peak of our season. Also included were beets, cabbage, parsley, kale, watermelon, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and a few last heirloom tomatoes. By next week, the tomatoes, watermelon and cucumbers will be largely finished and we’ll start in on the fall stuff — potatoes, onions, winter squash, hardy greens. Hard to believe we’ve made it this far – 13 weeks down, 10 more to go.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.