Thursday, April 14, 2016


Over the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about minor topics like politics, ethics, racism, and the unity of God, so I thought that the time really has come for me to address something of true moment: the burning question of whether Jews should or should not eat beans on Pesach. Nor am I alone in feeling this way about the matter: just last December, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly—the most authoritative body of halakhic decisors in our Conservative movement—found the time to approve not one but two different responsa regarding the subject, one by David Golinkin and the other co-authored by Amy Levin and Avram I. Reisner. I don’t know Amy Levin personally, but I’ve known Rabbis Golinkin and Reisner for far longer than I didn’t know them…and I know how seriously they both take even the most minute questions that arise in Jewish law. I imagine Rabbi Levin feels the same way. And so do I: knowing full well that God lives in the details and always eager to feel the presence of the living God in my personal ambit, it seems—to say the least—counterproductive to avoid the very place where God is to be found the most perceptibly: in the details, including the most minute ones, of observance, of custom, and of law. Furthermore, as we all know (but sometimes act as though we didn’t), it isn’t actually possible to obey “the” law without obeying specific laws any more than it would be possible to speak in “language” without speaking in some specific tongue…and doing that requires familiarity with the rules that govern even the most apparently banal aspects of our everyday Jewish lives. And with that thought in mind, let’s bring on the beans.

And the rice as well. My grandmother would probably not have known the Hebrew word kitniyot, used generically by some speakers of Jewish American English to reference legumes of the specific variety that Ashkenazic Jews traditionally shun on Pesach, but she certainly would have known that Jews don’t eat rice on Passover. Or, at the very least, that Ashkenazic Jews don’t. (I doubt my grandma was much tuned into the distinctions of observance between different groups within the people Israel—for her and the rest of my family, “Jews” of the generic variety were the Yiddish-speaking, Ashkenazic sort in more than plentiful evidence in her day in Brownsville. That there were other groups out there with their own ways and customs would, I imagine, have been known to her only in theory.) Nor would she have questioned the concept of not eating beans or rice on Pesach or been particularly impressed by the argument that there is something profoundly illogical about avoiding foods on Pesach that lack the capability, no matter how they are processed, of turning into chametz, the forbidden kind of leavened product the avoidance of which is the hallmark of traditional Pesach observance. Why would she have? Jews have hardly ever found illogic in and of itself to constitute a particularly vexatious stumbling block on the road to Jerusalem: we are, after all, a people that finds the act of sitting quietly and sewing to violate our conception of Sabbath rest, but not taking a three-mile trek through an ice storm to arrive in shul on a wintery Shabbos morning. So it’s illogical to avoid kitniyot on Pesach! So what?

I read both t’shuvot, both responsa, with great interest. They are of unequal length—Rabbi Golinkin’s effort is three time the length of Rabbi Reisner and Rabbi Levin’s—but come more or less to the same conclusion. Let me write about their argumentation first, though, and then I’ll tell you about their common conclusion and what I plan personally to do about it.

First of all, everybody notes forcefully that, from a strictly legal standpoint, only five kinds of grain—wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye—are in play at all at Pesach. It is only from one of those five grains, for example, that kosher matzah can be made for use on the festival. And it is only those five grains that, if not kept totally dry and then baked within minutes of being wet down as part of the kneading process, can turn into chametz, the generic name for leavened foodstuffs forbidden to the Israelites and their descendants on Passover. The Yerushalmi (that is, the Palestinian Talmud created in the Land of Israel in the course of the first five or so centuries of the Common Era) imagines this notion to be rooted in science and explains that the rationale behind the ruling is thus one of simple fact: these are the only grains that possess the ability to become chametz and it is for that sole reason that the prohibition applies solely to them. Whether that is true or not hardly matters, but what does count is that this restriction of the prohibition to bread made of the above-mentioned five grains is not merely a feature of talmudic reasoning, faulty or not, but a basic tenet of Jewish law it applies to Passover that appears in every major law code, including Maimonides’ magisterial Mishneh Torah (from which I teach on Saturday afternoons at the meal we serve between Minchah and Maariv), the Arbaah Turim of Jacob ben Asher (whose Torah commentary usually inspires my remarks at Shelter Rock on Friday evenings), and the Shulḥan Arukh itself, the bridge work created by Joseph Caro from his earlier commentary on Jacob ben Asher’s code that serves as the connector between medieval and modern Jewish law. So the matter sounds done and decided. There is, at any rate, no actual opposition in any code with which I am familiar to the idea that those five grains only can become chametz.

But nothing is ever that simple. And already in medieval times, different authors wrote positively about the concept of prohibiting kitniyot as well as “real” chametz on Passover. All try to come up with logical reasons to support the prohibition. Some note that the point was simply utilitarian: it was customary in one author’s day to make porridge out of rice or beans and to mix in wheat flour as a thickening agent, and since there was no way to tell just from looking at the porridge if that was or wasn’t the case, the more secure plan seemed simply to avoid that kind of porridge entirely. Others point out that it was actually customary in some locales to make bread out of pea meal or ground beans or rice…and it simply felt unseemly to have bread on the table during Passover even if it wasn’t chametz in the strict sense of the word. 

There’s something to consider there too, I think: it’s true that the prohibition has to do with leavened grain and not with bread per se, but it’s also true that, in a world without cellophane and plastic wrap, and also without pre-printed ingredient labels and brand names, it sounds like a poor idea to permit breadstuffs that no one can distinguish easily from “real” bread of the forbidden variety. And even if it were possible to tell what kind of flour was used to make a loaf of bread merely by looking at it, there is still something unseemly, even perhaps vulgar, about placing loaves of bread on the table during Passover even if they technically aren’t of the prohibited variety.

And from there we can go on to other authorities who either do or don’t feel that the prohibition is well-grounded or useful, but who felt simply that as custom as well-established as the prohibition of kitniyot on Pesach cannot possibly be abrogated by one single rabbi but would have to be annulled, if it ever were to be, by the rabbinate of the day speaking as one. Since that never happened (nor, given the fractiousness and one-upmanship that characterizes rabbinic discourse in every setting and day, will it ever happen), we have no choice but to hold onto a widespread custom that has characterized Jewish life for centuries upon centuries.  That too sounds right to me.  Plus, we have a well-accepted and widely-invoked principle that minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu, that the customs of our ancestors have been entrusted to us for safekeeping, and may therefore not be abandoned merely because they seem to have outlived their usefulness.

In the other column, we have all the reasons adduced by the authors of the new CJLS responsa mentioned above for abandoning the prohibition anyway, none of which strikes me as particularly convincing. Yes, vegetarians eat a lot of beans and so the prohibition of kitniyot rests unevenly on the shoulders of observant Jewish people taken as an aggregate. And it is probably also true that permitting kitniyot would permit people—or at least people who like to cook and who are good at it—to avoid pre-packaged Passover foods often sold to the public in the weeks before the festival at unconscionably high prices. But do we really think that people who buy packages of pre-prepared Pesach lasagna are going to decide to forego the expense merely because they could make a fava bean casserole for themselves instead? What if they like lasagna?
Moving down the list of reasons to permit, I agree that it surely is a fact—and an incontrovertible one at that—that many who hold tightly onto this and many analogous prohibitions do so not out of principle or logic but merely out of a basic fear of innovation when matters are ritual are concerned. Surely, innovation is a good thing…and particularly when it is principled and based on unassailable logic. And yet…part of the whole Pesach experience is the sense of keeping faith with the past, of recreating the past in the present, of inviting the spirits of those long gone from this earth into our homes as we do as they did, as we recreate the world they knew from inside their homes without caring that the world outside the walls of those homes has changed almost unrecognizably in the intervening centuries.

And it’s that specific notion, that the outside changes endlessly, but the inside—the warm, nurturing, endlessly spiritually rich home life of the men and women of the House of Israel—remains inviolate and unchanging, that speaks the most clearly and compellingly to me. The bottom line, then, is that I find the arguments for abandoning the custom unconvincing and unpersuasive, and so I am not planning to eat beans or rice—or any kitniyot—this Pesach.

On the other hand, I am pleased to remind you it has never been our custom to avoid kitniyot derivatives like oil made from legumes nor to avoid eating on dishes on which kitniyot have been served. Nor would anyone at all conversant with the halakhah ever argue that people who eat kitniyot on Pesach are transgressing any sort of biblical or rabbinic commandment.  There is no question that kitniyot are irrationally prohibited by Ashkenazic custom. But I embrace my role as the descendant of my own ancestors and find myself strangely uninterested in breaking with their pattern of observance merely to suit my own convenience.

As noted, I will not be eating rice this Pesach. But neither will I pretend that this CJLS-approved responsum does not grant legitimacy to the arguments against retaining the prohibition. Many of my readers know that I tend to find the maintenance of traditional mores and habits to constitute its own reward. To have a home in which my own grandmother would not feel comfortable eating on Pesach does not suit me at all! And neither does the fact that all my ancestors, including my parent and grandparents, are long gone from this world seem that crucial a datum to consider in this regard. So they’re gone…that only makes it illogical to maintain their standard of observance, not foolish. And, as noted, I can live with a bit of illogic if that’s what it takes to keep faith with all those countless ancestors whose presence I feel weighing down on me at Yizkor and whom I really would like, were it only possible, to invite in for a meal…and particularly for a seder.

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