A Question of Passover Practice

The following are some notes I wrote for myself concerning an issue that divides people at Passover time. What is the issue? Whether or not to eat rice, beans, corn, and so on. Sephardic custom allows these and Ashkenazi does not.

You may be asking, “Why are you discussing a Passover issue in January? It is because our Torah portion for this week is about the story of Passover and its laws.

Anyway, some will be interested in a topic like this and some will not. Here it is . . .

Kitniyot (Rice and Legumes at Passover)

It is the Ashkenazi custom to avoid rice, millet, corn, legumes (e.g., beans, peas, lentils), sesame and sunflower seeds at Passover. These foods are classified as kitniyot and are in a separate category from chametz (leaven), which can only come from the five grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye. Strict Ashkenazi custom also avoids any product of kitniyot, including things like sunflower oil.

The ban on kitniyot is not observed in Sephardic homes. Thus, at Passover, the Jewish community is divided. A religious Ashkenazi Jew cannot eat in the home of a religious Sephardi.

The ban on kitniyot is a late addition to Jewish law and comes from Eastern European tradition. It is found in the Shulchan Aruch but not in the Talmud. What were the reasons for this ban? As one writer explains:

First, cooked porridge and other cooked dishes made from grain and Kitniyot appear similar. Second, Kitniyot are often grown in fields adjacent to those in which Chometz is grown, and these grains tend to mix together. And third, Kitniyot are often ground into a type of flour that can easily be confused with Chometz. For these three reasons, these authorities suggested that by avoiding eating Kitniyot people would be better able to avoid Chometz. (Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech, Kitniyot in the Modern World. From the April 2002 issue of Kashrus Magazine, http://www.kashrusmagazine.com).

Should Messianic Jews observe the prohibition on kitniyot? Arguments in favor include:
(1) If you are not Sephardic, you should follow the Ashkenazi custom,
(2) Solidarity with the community is more important than legal technicalities, and
(3) the reasons for banning kitniyot are legitimate.

Arguments against following this requirement include:
(1) The work of Conservative rabbis (including the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel) who have ruled kitniyot permissible,
(2) The desire to see a unified Judaism with agreement on major points of halakhah,
(3) The fact that the kitniyot prohibition is very late in Judaism and not agreed upon by the whole community.

Currently, I recommend following the halakhah of the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council. It is important that we act as a community and not each person as they see fit in their own eyes. The MJRC says:

…in accordance with the Ashkenazic tradition (the lineage of most American Jews), we should also avoid eating the following foods on Pesach (called kitniyot): rice, millet, corn, legumes (e.g., beans, peas, lentils), sesame and sunflower seeds. According to traditional authorities, these are forbidden because they can easily be confused with the five grains listed above. Since string beans are classified as a vegetable and cannot be confused with grains, they may be eaten on Pesach.

The avoidance of kitniyot on Pesach would not be a practice for Messianic Jews living in a Sephardic Jewish environment. Sephardic Jewish families living in an Ashkenazic environment may follow the Sephardic minhag in their own home, but they should respect the minhag of the wider community when participating in community events or when inviting those from the community into their home.

Rabbinic tradition stresses the importance of conforming to local Jewish custom, even when it differs from one’s own normal practice. “Rabbi Tanhum bar Hanilai said: One should never break away from local custom. For Moses ascended on High and ate no bread [like the Angels, who do not eat], whereas the Ministering Angels descended below [Genesis 18] and ate bread” (b. Bava Metzia 86b).

In accordance with the determinations of many traditional authorities, the use of peanuts and peanut oil are permissible, as are the use of legumes in a form other than their natural state, for example corn syrup, corn oil, and soy oil. (http://www.ourrabbis.org/main/content/view/19/33/)

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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