Sushi for Passover? With age-old ban lifted, rice is now kosher at seder meal


This year, the Passover menus of many American Jews may feature rice and beans or sushi for the first time, thanks to new rules taking them off the list of foods forbidden during the elaborate meals prepared for the long holiday, which begins on Friday.

The change, approved by Judaism's Conservative movement in November, lifts a rule in place since the 13th century that prohibited Ashkenazi Jews outside Israel from eating a group of foods known as kitniyot – rice, corn, peanuts, beans and other legumes – during Passover.

The move comes partly in response to the growing popularity of gluten-free and vegan diets, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. But he said it is also a recognition of a changing composition and traditions of the Jewish faithful in the United States, which has the world's largest Judaic community outside Israel.

Jews of Ashkenazi descent, typically from Eastern Europe, are still in the majority in the United States. But a growing number are of Sephardic descent, typically from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East. And Sephardic Jews never had a ban on eating kitniyot during Passover.

Passover, which starts on Friday with a holiday meal known as a seder and ends on April 30, commemorates the flight of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

Conservative Judaism, one of the religion's three major branches, observes Jewish law but not as strictly as Orthodox Judaism or as loosely as Reform Judaism.

For Conservative Jews who have observed the centuries-old prohibition against eating kitniyot over Passover, this year's seder promises to be like no other they have experienced.

Menus might include sushi, which is made with rice; rice and beans; hummus; chicken satay with peanut sauce and other once-forbidden foods. The new variety may satisfy seder guests who balked in the past at traditional dishes like beef brisket, gefilte fish and matzo ball soup.

“For vegans, it was really a matter of not having protein for eight days,” said Dorff, a philosophy professor at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Still taboo for all Jews during Passover are any foods that are leavened – called hametz – including such grains as wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt. The only approved way to consume grains is in the form of matzo, a cracker-like food that symbolizes the Jewish flight from slavery, when there was no time for bread to rise.

Changing rules is one thing; changing tradition another, said Rabbi Amy Levin, interim rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport, Connecticut, whose research supported the decision to make kitniyot kosher for Passover.

“I'll make lentil soup in the pots I bought myself,” Levin said. “But the pot I inherited from my grandmother, I don't know. She never wanted to put lentils in that thing!”

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.

Spilling the beans: Another misstep for the Conservative movement


Ashkenazic Conservative Jews living in North America will, for the first time, be able to consume beans, rice and other previously prohibited foods known as kitniyot during Passover guilt-free. Or so they’ve been told by the movement’s law committee, which gave the green-light to these foods last December. 

This decision goes against the movement’s mantra of “conserving” the tradition and discards a long-standing custom for no good reason. 

Further, for traditionally observant Jews who remain affiliated with Conservative Judaism, this decision increases existing concerns about the movement’s perceived creep to the left. 

The Jewish tradition reflects a blend of both what the rabbis declare as the law and the grass-roots practices of the people. Therefore, the role of minhag, or custom, has a special significance in the development of halakhah, Jewish law. The prohibition of consuming kitniyot, while not technically mandated by the Talmud, became established minhag among Ashkenazic Jews during the medieval period.  Sephardic Jews did not adopt this custom. 

The line between minhag and halakhah often has blurred in the development of the Jewish tradition. For example, practices that begin as minhag can eventually work their way into the halachic decisions of rabbinic authorities.  The Jewish dietary laws in general provide an excellent example of this process.  

According to Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik, the son of Joseph Soloveitchik, “the traditional Jewish kitchen, transmitted from mother to daughter over the generations, has been immeasurably and unrecognizably amplified beyond all halakhic requirements.” He wrote how shocked he was when he realized this discrepancy between the letter of the law and normative Jewish practice. For example, according to Yoreh De’ah, a Jewish law compilation dating back to the fourteenth century, cold food does not require a separation of dishes.

Yet, no seriously observant Jew would consider eating a salami sandwich on dairy dishes.  Similarly, for observant Askhenazic Jews, Conservative and otherwise, kitniyot are, and will continue to be, off limits.

In practice, I suspect that the law committee’s blessing regarding kitniyot will be largely irrelevant for the majority of Conservative Jews who perceive the concepts of halakhah and tradition very differently. The language of halakhah suggests iron-clad rules and consequences for disobedience that are foreign to all but the most observant Jews. But “tradition” connotes positive associations and the desire for transmission.

When seen in this light, the law committee’s decision to permit kitniyot for Ashkenazic Jews has far more significance than allowing previously forbidden foods during Pesach.  It represents an erosion of long-standing tradition, which is a very dangerous step for a movement to take when it claims to care about conserving tradition and even maintaining halakhah. 

Think back to the ever-popular song Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof.  This song resonated with audiences of many different cultural and religious backgrounds for one simple reason: tradition is generally perceived as a positive value in life. And for cultural minorities such as the Jews, traditions should not be lightly discarded unless there are very compelling justifications in the other direction.

So what were the alleged reasons for the law committee’s decision?  Among the reasons given by the committee are that Passover is expensive and vegetarians need protein.  But allowing Jews to consume beans, rice and other kitniyot does not change the fact that all of the other foods observant Jews need to purchase for Passover still cost money. 

Speaking as someone who does not eat meat, the protein justification also rings hollow. After all, it is highly unlikely that most people will become malnourished in just eight days. Besides, in 2014, the Orthodox Union gave its blessing to the superfood quinoa, an outstanding protein source, for Passover.

In short, changing the deeply ingrained Ashkenazic tradition was unnecessary and even counterproductive to the communal spirit of the holiday. Observant Ashkenazic Jews tend to revel in their Passover eating hardships. These complaints have become a staple of our Passover culture but now the law committee has told us we have no reason to complain!

Speaking of hardships, the committee’s ruling also mandates inspection procedures for insuring that no hametz has contaminated our newly permitted kitniyot.  As if those of us who will be spending the next several weeks endlessly shopping, cooking and cleaning don’t have enough to do without searching for microscopic particles of hametz? 

For those at the top of the rabbinic pyramid who are charged with guarding Jewish tradition for the Conservative movement, the answer is not to change the rules to make them more lenient.  When the law committee ruled in 1950 that Jews are now permitted to drive to synagogue on Shabbat, Conservative Jews did not suddenly become more observant.  On the contrary, this decision ignited a controversy that raged for decades. 

The kitniyot decision will not likely create the same long-lasting buzz in the Conservative movement as the decision to permit driving to synagogue. This ruling involves custom rather than biblical or Talmudic law, it relates to a yearly rather than weekly ritual, and many seriously observant Jews who care about this level of detail have already migrated elsewhere.  But even absent the buzz, the reality remains clear. The law committee did not do Conservative Judaism any favors when it gave it blessing to kitniyot during Passover.


Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law.  She is the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Is Pot Kosher for Pesach?


Here’s a fifth question for the seder: What makes this herb different from all others?

The Green Leaf Party, a small Israeli political party that supports legalizing pot, announced March 27 that marijuana might not be kosher for Passover.

The reason, they say, is that marijuana seeds — and likely hemp seeds — are kitniyot, which Ashkenazim traditionally don’t consume on Passover. Sephardim do eat kitniyot.

“You shouldn’t smoke marijuana on the holiday, and if you have it in your house, you should get rid of it,” Green Leaf spokeswoman Michelle Levine told the Associated Press.

The announcement did not set off much of an uproar in Jerusalem, according to Jewschool.com editor Dan Sieradski.

Jews may be kashering their pots and pans for Passover, but he said he wasn’t aware of anyone throwing out their pot.

But even on a religious level, Sieradski said the argument that pot is kitniyot and should not be used by Ashkenazim is a pipe dream.

Kitniyot, generically called legumes, include rice, corn, beans, peas, lentils and seeds. The traditional ban among Ashkenazim, which is not rooted in halacha, began in medieval times from fear that kitniyot could come into contact with banned grains while in storehouses.

“For those who are machmid,” or stringent, about kitniyot, Sieradski said, “it could be an issue. But if they’re really that observant, they probably don’t smoke weed anyway.”

Perhaps it’s something on which the Orthodox and Reform could smoke a peace pipe: No herb — not on Passover or any other time.

“Marijuana is not kosher all year long,” said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer and rabbinic coordinator of kashrut for the Orthodox Union.

However, Elefant noted that if the marijuana is used for legal medical purposes, it would be acceptable on Passover, as are all medications.

Elefant’s Reform movement counterparts took a similar position.

“The law of the land is the law,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffe, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “If it’s illegal to use marijuana, we certainly don’t sanction the use of it.”

One Orthodox smoker in her late 20s said she had never asked her rabbi if pot was kosher for Passover because — like other natural products that are not grain-based — she assumed it was fine. If she did consult a rabbi over this, the woman said, she would consult the most lenient one she could find.

And if that rabbi told her pot was illegal for Passover, “I would just have to double my prescription for Xanax,” she said. “There’s always a replacement.”

JTA Staff Writer Ben Harris and intern Armin Rosen contributed to this report.