Passover Arrives with a Bigger Menu

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On Pesach, Jews will likely still pass on beans and rice — even though they’re now permissible for Conservative Jews of Ashkenazi origin.

On Pesach, Jews throughout the Delaware Valley will likely still be passing on the beans and rice — even though they’re now permissible for Conservative Jews of Ashkenazi origin.
While a few are expected to take advantage of the movement’s ruling in November that permits eating a category of food called kitniyot that includes rice, beans and other legumes, many may continue to carry on their longstanding family traditions and pass on these typically non-pesadich items, according to area rabbis.
The foods have always been eaten by most Sephardi Jews but were banned by Ashkenazi rabbis in the 1200s.
According to Rabbi Ariella Rosen of Adath Israel in Merion Station, with many Jews complaining about the high cost of eating during the week of Passover and the lack of healthy packaged foods, dispensing with a custom whose roots in Jewish law are relatively recent when compared with the much-older Mishnah and Talmud, may provide relief for families.
“It’s an opinion,” she said. “They may choose to follow it or not. We’re letting people know it’s now is a possibly. Others may challenge it.  With something like this, we’re not telling people what they should do.
“It’s not life changing,” she added, “but it most directly affects people who follow eating restrictions or have food allergies. It opens other food options.”
Plus, it can save money, considering the usual high cost of Pesach products.
The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards ruling referred to the “extremely inflated cost of products under Pesach supervision. “Were kitniyot to be permitted,” it concluded, “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.”
Health is another concern.
“Passover foods are high in fat and cholesterol,” said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Md., a member of the committee. A less restrictive diet would help those with heart disease, Crohn’s disease or colitis. “And meat is expensive and environmentally questionable in bulk.”
She added one other reason behind the committee’s ruling.
“In Israel, we’re seeing a coming together of Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions,” she explained. “Pesachdich in Israel includes kitniyot.”
The Conservative movement in Israel has permitted eating kitniyot since 1989. But at least one Philadelphia rabbi is inclined to believe tradition, more than the food itself, will sway his congregants to maintain the status quo.
“Pesach is only partly halachah,” said Rabbi Abe Friedman of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City. “It’s really about the intensity we feel towards the customs of our ancestors and the willingness to make a change in a long established custom.
“The most important message I’ll have for my congregation is whatever you do, you can still eat in everyone’s house,” he continued. “My sense is given the reality and the grounds to make a change, a lot are going to decline. So it becomes that much more important to emphasize the community even though their choices might diverge.”
The other interest is to throw light on the reason for the tradition itself. 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 Pesach, except as matzah.
But why are kitniyot — rice, millet, beans, lentils and the like — banned, since they cannot become chametz?
“The most interesting thing is that throughout Jewish history, from the very, very beginning until now, everyone has always agreed these things are not chametz,” said Friedman. “Outside of European Jews — North Africa, Middle East and Spain — all of those Jews have always eaten them for Pesach.
“This is really not about what you can or cannot eat. This is what it takes to change a long established well-entrenched custom,” he added. “Even though it would be fine for people in my congregation to eat them, I’m well aware a substantial portion of the congregation will not be serving these things.”
A number of reasons arose in Ashkenazi communities that led to the original ban in the 1200s. One is that rice and legumes are sometimes mixed with wheat, so to avoid an accidental mixture, they prohibited kitniyot.
“Another,” wrote Rabbi David Golinkin, a Conservative authority in Israel, “is if we allow kitniyot porridge, we will eat grain porridge because both are cooked in a pot.”
And if rice or bean flour can be baked into bread, someone might mistakenly think that it is alright to eat bread on Pesach 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 grains and it should be eminently possible to prohibit one while permitting the other.”
The Conservative movement already permitted eating kitniyot for vegetarians and vegans.
That’s good news to Germantown Jewish Centre Rabbi Adam Zeff.
“For vegetarians like myself and people who can’t eat products that are gluten free, it’s been hard to find sources of protein,” said Zeff.  “And for people having health problems, it’s a good reason for people to say this is OK.”
Nevertheless, “I think there’s value in the custom,” added Zeff. “Diversity is always a part of Jewish life. For some, this will allow them to feel more comfortable in a practice they’ve already adopted. For certain people it will reassure them. But I don’t think there is a right answer.”
Contact: jmarks@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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