November 17, 2018

Chocolate: a delicious holiday dilemma

A gentleman in a sweater bemoaned the fact that chocolate was forbidden at his childhood seders. Others of his generation attending a presentation about my book, “Jews on the Chocolate Trail,” recalled the same prohibition during Passover: No chocolate allowed. I was stumped. I had been researching connections between chocolate and Jews for almost a decade, and I had never heard this. I asked if they were certain that kosher for Passover chocolate was prohibited. They were adamant. There could be no chocolate whatsoever at Passover. 

I wondered if this prohibition concerned milk chocolate, as it could not fit in a festive meat meal. That made sense. Or, maybe dark chocolate was not available at that time. Yet dark chocolate preceded milk chocolate and would certainly have been around. 

Then I realized that there may have been confusion about the permissibility of cocoa “beans” at Passover. After all if legumes are prohibited, and chocolate comes from cocoa beans, then, some might think, cocoa beans, as well as coffee beans, should be banned. In truth, cocoa and coffee beans are not legumes. To market coffee beans and coffee drinking during the holiday, Maxwell House published its now ubiquitous haggadah and distributed it free. The same motivation may have driven the Bartons Chocolate Co. to produce a haggadah of its own. 

Some would still prohibit chocolate — not because of the cocoa bean itself, but because of the child slavery behind the some of our chocolate. More than 12,000 child slaves work on cocoa farms in West Africa. Not long ago, Rabbi Warren Stone of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, Md., spoke about these social issues as they were raised by members of his congregation:

“For many years we sold chocolate matzah and chocolate Passover candy as a fundraiser for our temple religious school. It was always successful. For, who does not like chocolate? Recently we had a chocolate revolution when certain parents, active in D.C. social-justice food movements and health, urged us to change our menu! This caused a shock among temple families who enjoyed the chocolate matzah during Passover. After consultations and debate, we decided to forgo the sale for the year and leave it up to further discussion and debate … as we are an uber-democratic place! Passover is coming. Will there be chocolate? I hope so!”

To address these issues, I have created my own haggadah, “A Socially Responsible Haggadah for a Chocolate Seder,” which is free to all and downloadable on the Web ( It discusses fair-trade options for your seder as an entry point to awareness about the issues of slavery, workers’ rights, poverty, economic justice, and fair trade in the chocolate business. In this haggadah, chocolate becomes the medium for uncovering themes of ethical kashrut, worker equity and food justice. It celebrates those who labor, often in great poverty, to grow and harvest cocoa beans, including children and young adults, some of them literally in bondage in the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast and Ghana. This haggadah also challenges seder participants to consider worker justice, while spotlighting Passover’s underlying messages of freedom, dignity and fairness.

As for my own seder, I serve chocolate desserts made with fair-trade chocolate. This Passover, I will recall that I am descended from Hebrew slaves in Egypt, and that, unfortunately, slavery still exists today. I will seek to advance freedom through my chocolate choices, take the child slavery out of my chocolate and truly make these Passover days different from all others.

Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz lectures about chocolate and Jews. Her book, “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao,” was published in 2013 by Jewish Lights and is in its third printing.