We made our decision. Did you make yours? In our home one of the most interesting and fun parts of preparing for Pesah this year was talking about, and listening to our friends’ discussions about, whether or not to eat kitniyot during Passover.
Some months ago the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of our Conservative Movement issued a teshuvah, an answer to a question many ask. In keeping our homes kosher for Passover is it okay to eat kitniyot (the rabbinic term for legumes including rice, beans, lentils, corn and peas)?”
Changing our diets on Passover from hametz, leavened and fermented foods that symbolize the excess and arrogance of Pharaoh and Egypt, to matzah, simple foods made from unleavened grains that remind us of the slaves’ fare and humility, many of us also eliminate legumes, rice, beans, lentils, corn and peas from our kitchens and menus.
Understand the question. Matzah is anything that is potentially hametz. Matzah is made from any one of five grains – wheat, rye, oats, barley, and spelt – which we eat in their most simple, unleavened form. Grains are not arrogant or humble. People are. On Passover we eat matzah in order to remember how we ought to behave toward others.
In traditional Jewish law fresh corn, peas, a variety of seeds, beans and vegetables, though similar, are not considered hametz. Sephardi Jews eat them on Passover. Ashkenazi Jews do not. If the purpose of changing our diet on Passover is to eliminate five particular grains in their fermented form in order to symbolize humility and dignity, then there seems to be no reason not to eat fresh kitniyot or products produced kosher for Passover containing them.
Thinking about this in our home, we understand it’s a choice. We asked ourselves, as I ask you. What meaning do we each seek for ourselves on Passover? How do we understand the customs and values of the holiday and how do we want to express them? What matters most is not whether or not we add rice or fresh corn to our dinner menus, but what do we intend in our personal Passover observance?
This year Robin and I choose to maintain this 800-year-old custom because it honors our family’s heritage. It is a link to our Ashkenazi ancestors from Eastern Europe who initiated this practice, we suspect, because they thought they were making things easier in an era long before processed foods when these legumes were harvested and prepared in the same manner as hametz.
“Minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu – the custom of our ancestors is in our hands.” We understand that knowing family history forms identity and helps sustain emotional wellbeing. We teach our loved ones that living in a large and diverse world, personal identity emerges from appreciating family histories and understanding that we are each part of a larger narrative.
On Passover we remind ourselves that living here and now we are part of larger story, each one of us connected to the whole of the Jewish people. We eat matzah to remember our enslaved ancestors who left Egypt. We don’t eat kitniyot to remember our grandparents, great-grandparents, and generations of Jews from the past who we strive to honor by our choices and behavior today.
Now that we’ve made our Passover food decisions, and perhaps you’ve made yours, here’s what really matters. At a time when Jewish law, halakhah, has little hold over most Jews, so many people we know, reflecting a variety of Jewish backgrounds and lifestyles, responded with enthusiastic consideration and conversation about whether or not to accept this newly granted permission and make a change in Jewish custom and practice.
Let’s be honest. Most of us choose when and how to respect and accept rabbinic authority in our lives. More of us perform mitzvot for meaning rather than from a sense of obligation. Many Jews honor those traditions that move them and disregard those that don’t. We tend to remember annual and seasonal occasions more eagerly than on-going, regular commitments. Individual autonomy and freedom in matters of religion are the signature blessing and curse of contemporary liberal Judaism and Jewish community.
Our discussion about kitniyot on Passover is not important because we may or may not change our holiday eating habits. Our discussion is important because it is about which Jewish traditions bring meaning to our lives, which customs touch our heads and hearts, and what purpose we find in living out our Jewish story.
After our Sedarim, the significance of the rest of the holiday week is about that purpose. As we begin our Omer count for this year, we journey with our ancestors in freedom from slavery toward the purpose of our Jewish story. Counting 49 days reminds us. Through the privileges and mitzvot of Torah, God is present in our lives every day.
Why else would we actually talk together about what’s for dinner this week of Passover? It’s one way we do find meaning in living out our Jewish story. We made our decision. Did you make yours?
Hag Sameah! – Enjoy a sweet and happy Passover!