Rice and Beans and Corn, Oh My!

On Passover, these foods remain out of bounds for Ashkenazim, but a rabbinic panel is examining the ban.

by Rabbi Paul Plotkin

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As we approach another Passover season I have come to believe that the Four Questions need to be amended to become the Five Questions, with the fifth question being, “On all other nights we eat all foods grown from the ground. Why on this night do we not eat kitniyot?”

Of course, this question would only be asked in Ashkenazi homes, where on Passover the foods called kitniyot – the catchall term for legumes, rice, corn, and certain other foods – are seemingly as forbidden as bread or pasta. The question would make no sense in a Sefardi home, where there is no tradition of prohibiting kitniyot. And since the passage of what’s known as the “Golinkin teshuvah,”  a rabbinic ruling for Masorti Jews in Israel, the question is no longer asked in those homes, either. But it is still a very real question in Conservative Ashkenazi homes in the Diaspora. Why? Will this puzzling issue ever be resolved?

kitniyotKitniyot are often understood to be legumes, though many foods defined as kitniyot are not legumes. Corn and rice are universally accepted as kitniyot, yet some Sefardi Jews don’t eat rice while all Sefardim eat corn. (Going to a movie in Israel on chol hamoed and seeing kosher for Passover popcorn and knowing you can’t have any is a great example of a Jewish identity crisis.)

Some authorities have ruled that while kitniyot are prohibited, kitniyot in liquid form or extracts whose form has significantly changed are permitted. Rarely are two lists of prohibited kitniyot the same.

In recent years people have discovered quinoa and asked about its Passover status. Since quinoa was unkown to the earlier rabbis (rishonim) it was approved for Passover consumption. However, that didn’t stop some rabbis in the Orthodox world from prohibiting it under the umbrella of kitniyot. To its credit, the Orthodox Union not only stuck to its guns in permitting quinoa, but this year is offering supervised quinoa to assure no inadvertent cross contamination with real chametz.

So what is this kitniyot situation really all about?

Kitniyot fall into a category of Jewish law called minhag, or custom. Minhagim are not mitzvot – they did not come from Sinai, they are not part of the oral law, and their practice can be as widespread as the entire Jewish world or limited to a single family.

We are not completely certain when the kitniyot prohibition began, though we know it was discussed starting around the 11th century and was codified in the 16th century. There are multiple answers as to why the ban was imposed but they tend to center around the idea that kitniyot look like grains or can be made into flour that looks like chametz flour.

Rabbi Isaac Klein, of blessed memory, was recognized as one of our greatest Conservative authorities on Jewish law. Over 40 years ago I was privileged to attend a lecture he gave on the laws of Passover. He told a story of two women who came to their rabbi with questions. The first wanted to know if cabbage was permitted on Passover. When the rabbi asked what her family’s practice was, she reported that they never ate it but she had heard that others did. He told her that it was forbidden. Later in the day, the second woman also wanted to know if cabbage was permitted on Passover. Again he asked what her family’s practice was. She said that they always ate it but she had heard that some people did not. The rabbi informed her that it was absolutely permitted to eat cabbage. Rabbi Klein added that the rabbi hoped the two women never shared the details of their meetings.

The story is a clear example of the power of minhag in Jewish life. In fact, many Jews who do not observe most mitzvot are punctilious in observing minhagim, especially if they associate them with loved ones going back generations.

While not technically an issue of minhag, here is an example of the power of this concept. When I came to Florida for my first American pulpit I met many Jews who did not have kosher homes but maintained a complete
kosher-for-Passover kitchen down to two sets of dishes. When I asked why they were so observant of kashrut on Passover but not during the rest of the year, they said that after their parents had died they gave up on keeping a kosher home but always brought out the two sets of Passover dishes to maintain the family’s Passover custom.

The rabbis understood this psychology and enshrined it in a principle called minhag avoteinu beyadeinu (the minhag of our forefathers remains in our hands). For instance, according to the Torah, Passover has a
yom tov (holy day observance) on the first and last days of the holiday, while the rest of the days are chol hamoed (intermediate days when working, driving, writing, etc., are all permitted). During the Babylonian exile the calendar was dependent on witnesses coming to Jerusalem and convincing the judges that they had seen the new moon. This established the first day of the month, which was communicated all over Israel. The Rabbis also developed a system for communicating the day of the new moon to the Diaspora in time for them to know when to begin the holiday. Unfortunately the system was sabotaged by non-Jews living in Israel, so those living in the Diaspora could not be sure whether the first day of the month was on day one or day two. Thus the two-day yom tov in the Diaspora was born.

When science and math had evolved to the point where the Rabbis could project an accurate calendar, the question arose as to what to do with the minhag of a second day of yom tov in the Diaspora. The Rabbis responded with minhag avoteinu beyadeinu as the reason to continue the practice.

In 1969, when the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Conservative Judaism’s halakhic decision making body, passed a teshuvah that gave rabbis the option of going back to the original biblical practice of one day of yom tov, few chose to do so. Why?

Because without referring to, or perhaps even having any knowledge of, minhag avoteinu beyadeinu, Conservative  Jews who went to shul wanted the second day. A rabbi of one of the few synagogues that chose to observe only one day told me his members were going down the street to another synagogue on the second day.

This is a long way around to let you know that the kashrut subcommittee of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which I chair, is working on the issue of kitniyot for Ashkenazim in the Diaspora. As part of that work a teshuvah, or position paper, on the issue of minhag and how it changes is being written. The discussion that results will influence our ruling on kitniyot. I for one have no idea what the eventual outcome will be. As for now, however, the status quo remains, which is to say that the Conservative movement in North America does not permit kitniyot on Passover except in special individual cases, which the congregational rabbi can rule on.

While we await a final ruling, those who crave a plate of rice and beans might add another wish for the future to the traditional “Next year in year in Jerusalem.”

Perhaps, “Next year with kitniyot?”

Rabbi Paul Plotkin has been the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Margate, Florida, since 1983. He chairs the kashrut sub-committee of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.