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!


There’s Always Tomorrow

The week long observance of Passover is coming to an end and many of us, I’m sure, are beginning to think of all the chametz we’re planning to eat. After abstaining for eight days from some of our favorite foods, it will be very satisfying to eat pizza, sandwiches, bagels and donuts. Passover is a very special holiday, rich with meaning and inspiration. But let’s face it…most people can’t tolerate the dietary restrictions imposed by Pesach for more than a week each year. Would it surprise you to know that the Torah tells of a second Passover, to be celebrated a month later? In the reading for the final day of Chol Ha-Moed (the four intermediate non-festival days of the holiday), we read this passage from the Book of Numbers:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they came out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Let the people of Israel also keep the Passover at its appointed season. In the fourteenth day of this month, at evening you shall keep it in its appointed season; according to all its rites, and according to all its ceremonies, you shall keep it.” And Moses spoke to the people of Israel, that they should keep the Passover. And they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month at evening in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so did the people of Israel. And there were certain men, who were defiled by the dead body of a man, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day; and they came before Moses and before Aaron on that day; And those men said to him, We are defiled by the dead body of a man; Why are we kept back, so that we may not offer an offering to the Lord in his appointed season among the people of Israel? And Moses said to them, Wait, and I will hear what the Lord will command concerning you. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If any man of you or of your posterity shall be unclean because of a dead body, or is in a journey far away, he shall still keep the Passover to the Lord. The fourteenth day of the second month at evening they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They shall leave none of it to the morning, nor break any bone of it; according to all the ordinances of the Passover they shall keep it.” (Numbers 9:1-12)

I’ve always liked this passage, not because it holds out the possibility of celebrating Passover a second time but because it speaks of second chances. These verses assure us that there’s always an opportunity to reconnect with our tradition and our community. Some clarification is in order. The passage begins with a reminder to the Israelites to observe Passover on the first anniversary of the Exodus, complete with the rites and rituals that were part of the first Passover celebration. Certain people, who were unable to observe Passover because they were not ritually purified due to contact with a corpse, complain that they should not be held back from observing the holiday and they appeal to Moses. God’s advice to Moses is that they should be able to observe the holiday on the same day of the following month. This resolution seems satisfying because it enables those who could not celebrate Passover to do so.

I’ve always been drawn to the part of the verse that says “If any person is on a journey far away…” The simple meaning of the passage is that if a person was not physically in a place to offer the Passover sacrifice, he could do so the next month. But I understand these words in a more symbolic light. If a person is on a journey that has taken him far away from Jewish tradition, if someone feels alienated or disconnected from the community, then there’s always a way back, another chance to get connected. That is the nature of our religious tradition. The door is always open to those who wish to participate, to learn, to become engaged and involved.

Despite what the Torah says, there is no actual second Passover. Once I’ve made the last batch of matzah brei, once I’ve put away our Seder plate and our Pesach dishes and pots and pans, the holiday is over until the following year. But one of the encouraging messages of the holiday is that there’s always, always, an open door, a way into Judaism. Passover reminds us that it’s never too late to find a pathway back to our tradition and our way of life.

Three Faces

It’s been my privilege to walk the streets of Jerusalem this week.  While enjoying the beautiful spring weather and exchanging greetings of “Chag Sameach” with strangers, I’ve made a point of noticing not just the buildings and the street names, which are always beautiful and intriguing, but also the faces of people I pass on the street.  As I walked down Rechov Yafo from the Machane Yehudah outdoor market to the Old City, I saw three particular faces that have stayed with me.  These faces have left me wondering about the people behind them, and have reminded me to look beyond crowds to try to see the human beings who comprise them.

The first face I saw was that of a young man, an Orthodox Jew affiliated with the Chabad movement.  He had set up a small portable table on one of the street corners with worn and tattered signage produced on a home printer hanging from the edge that was flapping gently in the breeze.  The sign advertised that the man could arrange for the sale of chametz to a gentile on behalf of his rabbi.  The spot in the city where he had located his table was not in the most religious neighborhood, so clearly the man was seeking to inspire people to sell their chametz who likely wouldn’t have done so on their own.  He chose a busy intersection, but very few people stopped by to sign the form, despite that there was no charge for this service and no hard push for tzedakah for the yeshiva.  I stopped for a while to look at his face, wondering what he was feeling.  Was he discouraged that so few people wanted to sell their chametz?  Was he wondering why he, a true believer and follower of the law, had to persuade others to fulfill a mitzvah so central to the observance of Passover?  As I was looking at his face, a man stopped by the table to sign the form and arrange for the rabbi to sell his chametz.  The man’s face lit up with joy.  What was he thinking?  Was he contemplating that he had come one step closer to bringing the Messiah by persuading one more person to observe the law?  Was he thinking that his diligence and effort would please his rebbe?  I wondered…

The second face I saw was that of a woman who seemed to be not young but not elderly.  She, like so many others, had a cell phone pressed to the side of her head and was engrossed in conversation.  That’s not an unusual site in the times in which we live.  But this woman had a look of anguish on her face and tears streaming down her cheeks.  I couldn’t hear her voice, since it was muffled by her hair and gentle sobs.  Why was she crying?  Maybe it was not anguish she was feeling, but joy.  Had she heard good news?  Had she just experienced reconciliation with a family member or friend?  Or was I correct that she was feeling anguish and had just learned about a tragedy, or perhaps was having an argument?  Perhaps she given over to unbounded or even inappropriate expressions of emotion when having ordinary conversations?  What could be prompting her tears?  I wondered…

The third face I saw was that of an old man walking slowly down the street using a cane.  His steps were excruciatingly slow, perhaps an inch or two at a time, more of a shuffle than a walk.  It wouldn’t have been out of place to worry that he would fall down.  Right behind him, though, was his aid pushing his wheel chair.  By itself, that might not have been a site to notice, as the aid could have been acting as the safety net for his charge.  But the man’s face revealed a determination chiseled into his features.  Each step was accompanied by grit and ultimate effort.  Was he feeling pride at being able to move on his own?  Was he feeling desperation or at what could have been one of countless attempts to ambulate on his own?  Was he feeling worry that if he couldn’t make it on his own he would be forced to sit in his wheelchair, and endure a crushing loss of independence?  Was he hoping to impress his children that he could still make it?  I wondered…

When I’m in crowds, I tend now to look more at faces than at the bulk of people I see.  I try to imagine who they are and what stories they could tell.  I contemplate what I can learn from them that could be helpful and insightful, even if I can’t know with certainty that my speculation is right or wrong.  Looking at faces has caused me to see the human beings in a crowd, and has reminded me of the ancient Jewish teaching from the Mishna that rather than creating a human race, God created at first one person to teach that each life has a measure of holiness and value and that each person can impact our lives in a unique way.

So I urge you to spend some time looking not at crowds but at faces and the human beings who bear them.