Pesach has always been my favorite holiday. I love the stories, the songs, and the leisurely meal. Cleaning doesn’t bother me, and it’s a great excuse to muck out the freezer and dark corners in the back of the cupboards once a year. And I enjoy many of the foods that are special to Pesach.
One thing I do NOT like about Pesach, however, is the absurd attitude of Ashkenazim to kitniyot. Those little beans, grains of rice, and seeds are NOT the enemy. Chametz IS.
And yet the ban on kitniyot, of murky origin and astonishing durability, is allowed to endure and even to expand. American corn (maize), peanuts, edamame, string beans, and even quinoa are prohibited by some (if not most) Ashkenazi authorities, despite being New World foods never imagined by Europeans when kitniyot-phobia took hold.
We traditional Jews are picky about our food; the Torah tells us to be. But picky and deranged are two different things, and when it comes to Pesach and what we’re supposedly not allowed to eat, deranged is a better description of our behavior. The ban was called “foolish” and “mistaken” by rabbis at the time the French community first took it on in the 13th century, but no one listened to them. Rav Moshe Feinstein did not advocate abandoning the ban, but urged against expanding it to new foods. In both cases, the will of the people to be barking mad was stronger than the authority of their own sages.
We Crunches went along with the kitniyot nuttiness back in the States. It was the custom of our community (minhag hamakom), and while we were getting our frum feet under us, we didn’t ask too many questions.
So what finally tipped me over the edge? Let me count the things:
1) We made aliyah, and the tight sense we used to have of our surrounding community has loosened since we’ve been here. People around us keep so many different minhagim, and there is not the centrally recognized authority that our American community had with its rabbinic guidance. People here go by their family’s customs, psak from their rav from yeshiva, or from some other rabbi with whom they’ve forged a relationship. As for family minhagim, our families customarily ate pasta and bacon cheeseburgers during Pesach, and we don’t really have a relationship with any rabbis here yet, so we are on our own either to hold on to our American customs or to adopt new Israeli ones.
2) Two years ago, I began to ask more questions about the practice, including where it had originated, why it’s still clung to, and practical questions such as, “Does serving kitniyot make your Pesach dishes treif?” The custom, as explained by my teacher (whom I consulted on this and most other issues), was initiated by French Jews whose community had been badly hit during the Crusades, who hoped by adopting a chumra (stringency) to demonstrate their faith to Hashem and thereby escape further persecution by their Christian neighbors. I understand the cloud of fear under which those Jews must have lived, and if their response to it was to take on chumrot, that was for them to decide. I cannot say, however, that I agree that their very local and timely custom should bind all of us for eternity. And kitniyot reside in Limbo in the Passover food world: not eaten by most Ashkenazim, but not chametz, either, and certainly not treif.
3) Last year, a rabbi in our community gave a shiur on quinoa. We didn’t go, because the year before he had announced that it was acceptable and besides, quinoa is a vegetable (from the beet family, to be specific), not a grain. Afterwards we found out from a friend who had gone to the shiur that the rav had explained again that quinoa is not a grain and is halachically permissible, but the rav had actually reversed his ruling because of the concern of ma’arit ayin (fear of appearing to be eating kitniyot). In other words, he said we cannot eat chametz, or kitniyot, or (adding a third layer of prohibition) even appear to be eating kitniyot. One of the things I have admired over the years about traditional food laws has been the sophisticated knowledge of food science (and other sciences) required of rabbinical authorities when making rulings about certain foods or practices. When this rabbi reversed a responsible, scientifically sound, halachically-informed opinion because of ma’arit ayin, he caved in to the forces of ignorance, gossip, and judgmental behavior—an attitude from which I try to keep my distance in the Jewish world.
4) I remember years ago some friends telling us about how one Pesach they had made and served a salad during Pesach, and the wife had accidentally put snow peas in the salad. Their guests gawked and the balabusta nearly fainted from embarrassment, but I was left after hearing this story wondering, “Who the hell makes bread out of snow peas? And will a few snow peas lead to mixed dancing? Or the end of civilization as we know it?”
5) Rav David Bar-Hayyim, shlit”a, a Jerusalem rabbi known affectionately by some (and derisively by others) as “the kitniyot rabbi,” has finally liberated both kitniyot and Ashkenazi Jews living in Israel from their chains of stupidity, allowing for their happy reunion. Ruling that there is no minhag in Israel to avoid kitniyot, and that Ashkenazim who come here to live should adopt the local minhag, he has ruled in favor of a community of Israeli Jews who can eat in one another’s homes for Pesach and throw off some of the fears, bad memories, and chumrot that continue to drive Jewish practice in other parts of the world. (Rav Bar-Hayyim also posits that the pascal sacrifice does not require the Temple in order to be performed—there was no Temple in Egypt, after all—and that families should be getting together to slaughter and eat lamb as in days of yore. He also doesn’t agree with the kula of selling chametz before the holiday. We’re on a lower madrega spiritually than those two things, but are working our way up year by year.)
So no, by putting kitniyot back on the menu we’re not converting to Sefardi Judaism, or throwing off the mantle of frumkeit, or advocating mixed dancing. We’re just adopting a local minhag.
For more information on kitniyot, Wikipedia has an entry, there is a blog called The Kitniyot Liberation Front, and our late beloved friend and teacher, Rabbi Richard J. Israel z”l, wrote an informative and amusing d’var Torah back in 1997 which explains the practice and origins of the kitniyot ban, and gives the reasons for the Conservative movement’s call for an end to the ban.
Tune in again tomorrow when I share two quinoa recipes, one of which includes—gulp!—KITNIYOT!