To eat or not to eat
On Passover, Rabbi Alex Greenbaum will be passing on the beans and rice.
Greenbaum, spiritual leader of the Conservative Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, said he wouldn’t take advantage of his 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 been banned by Ashkenazi rabbis since the 1200s. Reform Jews have permitted eating rice and legumes during Passover for the last two centuries.
“I don’t change easily,” Greenbaum said, noting that his wife, Rabbi Amy Greenbaum, definitely will be eating kitniyot.
Although Greenbaum’s life would be easier if he indulged in rice and beans during the holiday — he is a vegetarian — he instead abides by the principle espoused by a rabbinic colleague that “a change in the movement should be for compassion, not convenience.”
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 Amy Levin, along with Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, authored one of the opinions on behalf of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Levin emphasized in an interview that the opinion was not intended to dictate a change, but instead offered an analysis as to why consuming kitniyot could be an option for those so choosing.
“If you are an Ashkenazi Jew, and you want to walk away from the custom, here’s why it’s OK, and here’s how to do it,” said Levin, who served as interim rabbi of Beth Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh last year.
With the increase in the number of vegans and vegetarians in the Jewish community, Levin said, the option of eating kitniyot provides more dietary variety and additional protein sources.
Cost, she said is also a factor.
“Legumes are a less expensive source of protein,” Levin said. “It costs less to feed people a chickpea stew than a brisket.”
With the increase of Sephardic Jews in the United States, including the emigration of Jews from Syria and Iran, there is a greater market for kitniyot, she noted.
“It’s very telling,” Levin said, “that Manischewitz created a whole new label called Kitni.”
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 the 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, Md.
“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.
Still, Levin said she probably would not be using her grandmother’s kosher-for-Passover pot to cook a lentil stew.
“It’s not always a cerebral issue,” she said, “and it shouldn’t be.”
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.
Greenbaum said he has been fielding calls from congregants who want to know if he will be eating kitniyot this year. Although he tells them it is fine for them to indulge, several are disinclined to do so unless they know their rabbi is doing the same.
“Look, I’ve lived 46 years without eating it,” Greenbaum said. “I think I could go another 74 years.”
He noted that some of his colleagues are telling their congregants that they should eat kitnyot because it will “enhance their Passover and make it more special.”
But that is not the only path to a special holiday, according to Greenbaum.
“I would just say you should eat more chocolate,” he said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. David Holzel can be reached at email@example.com.