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Wednesday, 28 March 2012
Kitniyot-A Vegetarian Perspective
As we plan our menus for the upcoming Passover holiday, most of us have a good sense of what we will be eating. There are of course the traditional foods: maror, haroset, matzo ball soup (possibly made vegetarian) and plenty of crispy matzo. But there are also the dishes unique to our families: grandma’s mock kishke, dad’s sweet mandle bread, your famous locally grown, organic, hametz-free, vegan nut burgers. These “family” foods are part of the customs we look forward to most and miss when not at home, along with the stories, the singing and the community. And for some of us, part of our holiday tradition is not to eat beans, rice and corn—kitniyot--during the holiday. Most likely this is not out of a strict adherence to Jewish law, but instead is part of the powerful pull that tradition and custom has on our lives.
Most Ashkenazi Jews, both meat eaters and vegetarians, have the custom of not eating beans, corn and other similar foods during the holiday of Passover. The practice came about centuries ago as part of a "safety net" to not eat hametz on the holiday, but never became law, and is still not practiced by Sephardi Jews and some Ashkenazim. The issue of kitniyot is fascinating not only because of the important spilt it made in the Jewish community, but also for the power of the social values, tradition, the meaning of custom, and the role of ethics, which it brings into the discussion of the holiday. As vegans and vegetarians we often depend on kitniyot for our diet more than omnivores, so not eating them during the holiday can be a challenge. But we do have a choice on Passover whether or not to eat these foods, and it is important to understand the issues and the history involving kitniyot so that we can better make sense of the decisions we make.
The original prohibition of eating kitniyot on Passover comes from an understanding of the meaning of hametz. One of the core mitzvot of Passover, and one practiced by most Jews (even those who do not keep kosher the rest of the year) is to eat matzo and not eat or “own” hametz during the days of Passover. Hametz can come from five grains: wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt (see Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 35a). The rabbis teach us that only these grains can become hametz when they ferment. Since matzo must be made from something that can become hametz, it is made only with these grains and not corn, beans or other flours. But these foods, while not used for making matzo, are not forbidden to eat.
So if the law of eating hametz does not explicitly prohibit eating kitniyot, where did the tradition of not eating these foods come from? While the kinds of foods described as kitniyot come from the permissible grains for making matzo, the custom instead comes from a more sociological, psychological and practical perspective. First, hametz and kitniyot flours look very similar. Since they did not want people to mistake hametz flour for kitniyot flour, some rabbis said we should not eat kitniyot. The rabbis were also concerned that prepared and cooked kitniyot might be somehow confused with real hametz, since cooked foods made with hametz grains and with kitniyot also look very similar (both by the preparer and by those who might see the food and mistakenly think it was hametz). And finally, there was a concern that since kitniyot and hametz grains often grow close to each other in fields, there was a chance that they might mix together when harvested. For these reasons, some religious authorities said that even though eating kitniyot is not prohibited by Jewish law, it is best not to eat them.
The first "official" mention of the custom of not eating kitniyot comes from two French rabbis of the 13th century, Rabbi Yitzchak of Corbelli and Rabbi Manoach of Narbonne. Rabbi Yitzchak writes "our teachers observe the custom" of not eating legumes and rice during Passover, although he adds that not everyone follows this practice, and that some great sages also disagree (Sefer Mitzvot Katan Ch. 222). Even though his own father-in-law and teacher believed that there was no need to prohibit these foods, Rabbi Yitzchak did not want to "permit something that for so long has been forbidden".
The practice became generally adopted by the Ashkenizi Jews of Eastern Europe and has been practiced for very much the same reasons of custom up until today. Sephardic Jews, those of Spanish and Middle Eastern decent, followed the ruling of Rav Joseph Caro and other rabbis who did not accept this practice. They often wrote that not eating kitniyot went against a basic understanding of the Mishnah, Talmud and accepted Jewish law. There is quite a bit of truth to this--in fact not eating kitniyot directly contradicts the decision in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 114b) which allows it, and goes against the view of all but one of the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, and centuries of other rabbis and Jewish thinkers. Yet, at least for Ashkenazi Jews, custom still prevails.
There is an understanding in Jewish law that a minhag (custom) that is practiced by the majority can become law, and that if something is created to "put a fence around the Torah" (ie. prohibiting something permissible so that we do not accidentally stray into doing something wrong) then it can function essentially as law. While this Ashkenazi prohibition today functions for many as if it is a law, its source in minhag shows how it is not as strict as laws about hametz. For example, kiniyot can be eaten during years of famine or drought, the sick are often allowed to eat it, and we can still "derive benefit" by owning and selling kitniyot, all which are forbidden with hametz. Regardless of the deeper issues of how law relates to minhag, today the custom of not eating kitniyot on Passover is so ingrained as part of our celebration of the holiday (at least with Ashkenazi Jews) that many people do not even need these arguments. As with many other aspects of Jewish practice, "My parents and grandparents did it” is a real and valid enough reason to continue the custom.
Yet for those who take seriously the issue of kashrut and the understanding where our food comes from, the issue of kitniyot can become a little more complicated. Because of current Passover practices and societal views, both the liberal Jewish denominations and the mainstream orthodox rabbinate have recently changed their views on whether kitniyot is permissible on Passover. The Reform movement many years ago put out a responsa saying that eating kitniyot is allowed, and the Va'ad Halachah of the Conservative movement put out a surprisingly strong halachic argument for doing the same. The Orthodox rabbi, Moshe Feinstein (20th century America) wrote that peanuts are not considered kitniyot since they were not available in Europe when the kitniyot customs became popular among Ashkenazi Jews, and therefore more recently introduced foods such as corn and soybeans can also be used during Passover. Even a major orthodox religious court has ruled (in 2007) that kitniyot should be permissible for Ashkenazi Jews living in Israel. They all ask the question: Should people be holding onto a custom, which most classical sources see as mistaken, and one which it could be argued takes away from the joy of the holiday? Nevertheless, no matter how many rulings are passed and responsa are written, as with so much of Jewish life, again, custom and tradition usually wins.
For vegetarians and "ethical eaters" who have made the choice to add additional "prohibitions" for the holiday, the question of kitniyot and custom brings up some deeper questions about Jewish practice and moral values. Should we not eat beans and healthy, cruelty free sources of vitamins and protein simply because of a practice that most rabbinical authorities agree is based on custom and not law, especially when eating unhealthy and cruel animal products is allowed with no questions asked? Can we justify on a holiday which celebrates freedom, to holding on to a custom which denies us the right to eat certain plants, when the majority of Jews are eating the flesh of animals which were denied their freedom and killed for meat?
It can of course be a challenge to make a choice which is different than what others around us (especially our families) are doing, but as vegans and vegetarians this should be an accepted part of out lifestyle and eating choices. On the other hand, there is undeniably much validity to being vegan or vegetarian and not eating kitniyot, because of the emotional and spiritual power of keeping family traditions or following the practice of our ancestors. Yet unlike other aspects of our eating, this is an issue that is much more removed from halacha and Jewish law, and instead is about custom and the meaning of choice in relation to community norms. So many of our personal choices and religious and social views come from our family and from our past, and to deny these "truths" is to deny a large part of our heritage. Nevertheless, as people who think about food as something that is more than just tradition, as something that can help heal the world---or hurt it--we must at least challenge ourselves to think about the additional meaning that this custom brings to holiday. Is not eating a bean during Passover a statement that holds with our highest values of compassion and ethics, when we accept that others do not hold these values? Or is the power of tradition worth the minor inconvenience of not having kitniyot during the holiday? These are questions we must all answer for ourselves as we get ready for the holiday. Thankfully, no matter how we choose--kitniyot or not--on this day we know that we do not have to eat animal products to celebrate and remember. And we can feel comfortable knowing that our ancestors left room on this holiday for the freedom to make the choices for ourselves.
Pass it On!
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