Ok, I give up! I’m waving the white flag! I surrender!
This year I will finally consent to allowing kitniyot (kitniyos) into my house, kitchen, and family on Passover.
There, I said it!
Here is the truth- as a proud purebred galizianer[i] Jewish woman married to another purebred galizianer and having produced three practically inbred galizianer children, you can understand my hesitation at allowing kitniyot into our Passover culinary repertoire. However, at this point in my life and my marriage, I’m truly running out of excuses.
Now, while my husband and I both share similar Polish/Russian Ashkenazic heritage, our family stories begin to diverge around 1915 when my family- hungry, impoverished and with very much nothing to lose, made their way west to the shores of the United States. In contrast, my husband’s family stayed in Eastern Europe, suffered through the atrocities of the Holocaust and eventually made it to Israel where they settled in 1948. Once in Israel, they adopted the practice of following “minhag Yisraeli” (Israeli customs), which included eating kitniyot on Passover. It’s a simple idea-when in Israel, act like an Israeli.
Despite moving to the United States in the early 1970s, my husband’s family has continued the practice of “minhag Yisraeli” and it was only when we spent our first Passover together as an engaged couple that he really began to experience a full Ashkenazic Passover with all of its chumrot (stringencies). In fact, my late grandfather, Rabbi Philip Schechter z”l was so strict that he wouldn’t eat gebruchts – any matzah product that had been mixed with water. This meant our decidedly modern Orthodox family ended up spending many a Passover at ultra-Orthodox hotels in the Catskills where we stuck out like a sore thumb.
After our first Passover together, my soon- to- be husband asked if I would ever consider cooking and serving kitniyot on Passover. I immediately balked at the suggestion, “I cook for Pesach the same way that my mother does and we don’t do kitniyot” has always been my excuse. Tradition simply for the sake of tradition. However, what is the point in following a tradition, when it just doesn’t make sense anymore? For my husband, eating kitniyot on Passover is not just about making our lives easier because we will have more options, for him it’s about being connected to the people, land, and the traditions of the modern state of Israel.
Our holy ancient texts, the Torah, Mishnah, and Talmud, lay out the rules of food restrictions on Passover, which basically excludes eating leavened food products made from the five grains: wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats, which are considered chametz. The practice of not eating kitniyot, (ancient Hebrew word for legumes), on Passover came into practice in Ashkenazic communities much later, most probably during the medieval times. During this time, it became the practice on Passover to also avoid food products that might resemble chametz, referred to as kitniyot which includes beans, legumes, and certain grains like rice.
According to Rabbi David Golinkin:
The custom of not eating kitniyot and rice on Pesach is first mentioned in France and Provence in the 13th century by Rabbis Asher of Lunel, Samuel of Falaise and Peretz of Corbeil. From there it spread to various countries and the list of prohibited foods continued to expand. Nevertheless, the reason for the custom was unknown and, as a result, rabbis invented at least 10 different explanations. For example, chametz sounds like chimtzei (= humus = chickpeas); if we allow kitniyot porridge we will eat grain porridge because both are cooked in a pot; rice and kitniyot are sometimes mixed with wheat. The large number of explanations for not eating kitniyot proves that no one knew the real reason. I believe that the original custom was to refrain from kitniyot on all festivals, not just Pesach, because kitniyot were associated with poor people, mourners and Tishah b’Av.
Whatever the original reason, Rabbi Samuel of Falaise (13th century), one of the first to mention it, referred to it as a minhag mahmat taut (mistaken custom), Rabbi Yeruham (Provence, 14th century) called it a minhag shtut (foolish custom), and Rabbi Ya’akov Ben Asher (Toledo, d. 1343) said, “it is an unnecessary humra (stringency), which is not followed[ii].
Corn and potatoes are “new world” starches that did not make it over to Europe until at least the 15th century and are therefore not mentioned in ancient texts, but Ashkenazic rabbis later ruled that corn was considered kitniyot while potatoes were not. In truth, research reveals that each individual Ashkenazic community held their own standards of which foods were deemed kitniyot and which ones were not. This diversity of Passover stringencies carriers over until today as there are some Hasidic groups that forbid the consumption of ANY vegetable on Passover that cannot be peeled for fear that peel of the vegetable has somehow come in contact with chametz.
This year will mark my 10th year “making” my own Passover for my family. As the years go on, I can’t help but feel that all of these crazy chumras have taken us away from original intention of the Feast of unleavened bread as described in the book of Exodus. By reincorporating kitniyot into my family’s Passover culinary tradition, I do believe that we are not only aligning ourselves with the traditions of Israel, our true homeland, but we are also allowing ourselves to get “back to basics” with Passover, away from all the 7 dollar Passover cake mixes and boxes of sawdust-like Passover breakfast cereal that my kids still won’t touch no matter how attractive the box.
This Passover, let’s celebrate our freedom by re-embracing kitniyot and thereby taking a moment to sojourn with our ancient past and the bright future that exists for the Jewish nation and our homeland, midinat Yisrael, the state of Israel.
[i] Galizianer refers to Eastern European Jews geographically originating from Galicia, from western Ukraine (current Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil regions) and from the south-eastern corner of Poland from the Galician region.
[ii] The full text of this responsum was published in the Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel 3 (5748- 5749), pp. 35-55, www.reponsafortoday.com/Vol3/4.pdf.