What To Do With Our Ancestors’ Customs Placed In Our Hands

The holiday of Passover is around the corner and with it comes the oft-asked question: Can we eat kitniyot? “Huh?” you ask! “What’s kitniyot? And why can’t I eat it?” The answer is an interesting example of the intersection between tradition and change.

To understand the issue of kitniyot, it’s necessary to know what “chametz” or leaven is. Jewish law prohibits the consumption of leaven during Passover, which is any one of five grains—wheat, barley, oats, rye or spelt—that have come into contact with water and been allowed to ferment. Jews are also prohibited from actually owning chametz on Passover (which is why so many people actually “sell” their chametz prior to the holiday), deriving any benefit from it, or even seeing it (hard to accommodate that part of the law nowadays). The prohibition on the consumption of chametz is pretty extensive, including leaven that is both visible and mixed into other foods as well as dishes and utensils on which it is served and cooked. Strictly speaking, even a speck of chametz is disallowed during the holiday.

Up until about 700 years ago, eating on Passover was pretty much just about setting aside chametz. During the 13th century, some Ashkenazic rabbis began talking about prohibiting rice, beans, millet and legumes, collectively known as “kitniyot.” Some suggested that these foods should be prohibited either because they were prepared in ways similar to chametz or were stored in similar containers and in the same location. They were apparently concerned that some people might wrongly assume that if “kitniyot” are permitted, then so are the prohibited chametz grains. (Sephardic rabbis had no problem with kitniyot, likely because of different agricultural and consumption practices in Sephardic lands, and to this day Sephardic Jews have no problem eating them.)

Some scholars across the centuries supported the ban on kitniyot. But mostly, the ban was acknowledged as pointless and even confusing. Some saw it as heaping unnecessary restrictions on people during a holiday that is meant to be joyous but is often experienced as a burdensome time. But the Ashkenazic ban on kitniyot stood the test of time. That is, until a few years ago. First, Rabbi David Golinkin, President Emeritus of The Schechter Institutes in Israel wrote an extensive paper (known as a teshuva) permitting the consumption of kitniyot. And just a few months ago, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS) published a teshuva by Rabbi Amy Levin and Rabbi Avram Reisner permitting the consumption of kitniyot on Passover by Conservative Jews.

Rabbis Levin and Reisner acknowledge that there is a long standing practice of honoring the decisions and practices of our ancestors, even in cases when we don’t agree with their reasoning or understand what prompted them to embrace those practices. There is a principle in play here: minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…the customs of our ancestors are in our hands. In other words, we should be careful to respect and honor the practices of previous generations. Judaism is a religion based on tradition, and we are typically not quick to dismiss what the past has given to us.

But tradition must be balanced with change, an open and honest embrace of the present and the future. We must consider seriously the values and priorities of our own times if our religion is to have meaning and relevance. Thus the teshuva written by Rabbis Levin and Reisner also addresses the inapplicability of the primary concerns that once gave rise to the ban on kitniyot, the need to create a Jewish experience that is unencumbered by burdens and needless prohibitions, the need to lower the cost of “making Passover,” and even the health benefits of eating legumes (the teshuva reminds us that all processed foods should have a Passover “hechsher”).

So eat rice and beans during Passover! Embrace change even while maintaining a healthy respect for the traditions practiced by the generations of Jews who came before us. And remember that Passover should be about more than what foods are permitted and what foods are not. It’s about celebrating the fundamental freedoms that are the right of all human beings and our obligation to uphold them.

Chag Sameach v’Kasher!


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