The place: Goshen, Egypt
The time: About midnight/10th Plague
Setting: our ancestors, the 12 tribes of Israel, gathering together at the feast celebrating imminent redemption from slavery.
Scene 1: someone passes me a bowl of rice and I say: “Sorry, I don’t eat Kitniyot!”
Absurd? Totally! Reflective of our Jewish world? Unfortunately, yes!
This past week, my wife and I were shopping for the culinary necessities of Seder and walking through rows of Passover foods and kibbitzing with the international cast customers in the Kosher Supermarket was a very spiritual moment for me. I felt I was back in Israel: speaking Hebrew with a senior citizen from Minsk, Belarus, my wife conversing in Hungarian with fellow Magyars, the sounds of Yiddish mixing ever so gently with the sabor of Spanish accented English enwrapping the clientele in a Tallit of common purpose and Peoplehood: Preparation for the feast celebrating our redemption from Egyptian slavery.
And then it all changed.
Searching the market’s spice section for a container of Zaatar, but without success, a clerk directed me to the Kitniyot section of the market along with the ominous warning: “This is for Sephardim only!” In a moment, my memories of our People marching out of the cauldron of Egypt and from Pharaoh’s oppression, became shattered when confronted with the sign: “Kitniyot Section for Sephardim Only!”
I am fascinated by the historic roots of Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs, traditions, “dos and don’ts”, especially in the light of contemporary Jewish life. In today’s Jewish landscape, the problem is not our differences and disagreements which are based upon philosophical or theological issues or concerns (as surprising as that may be), but rather those based solely upon the minefield known as: Minhag/Custom! Referred to at my synagogue as: What is the real Adon Olam!
The Ashkenazi Minhag/Custom of forbidding beans, rice, corn, green beans, peas, and peanuts among numerous other items (refer to your rabbi or Google for a full list), during Pesach, places an unnecessary barrier between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. It values vegetables as more important than the unity of our People celebrating our freedom as well as minimizes the fact that we have been Jews far longer than Ashkenazim or Sephardim.
The Torah vividly describes the chaos, the fervor, the excitement of our hurried departure from Egypt (just ask any child to explain why we eat matzah and look at the sparkle in their eyes when they explain it!). Where is that fervor and excitement among our adults today? Lost in the frenzy of searching ingredients on labels; lost in the maze of so much detailed minutia, that many families flee their homes during the holiday rather than risk becoming overwhelmed with it all; so caught up in the Wilderness of our own making that, like our Generation of the Wilderness, we have lost our direction and goal: Heading to the Promised Land.
In today’s Jewish world, with the Homeland of our People restored and tribes of Israel returning home, Pesach is the most appropriate time and opportunity to celebrate our common and united Peoplehood, not to emphasize our differences (we already have too many of those).
I once asked an Orthodox rabbi how long one remained Ashkenazi and could I adopt some non-Ashkenazi customs, such as eating rice on Pesach? His answer: “So eat rice!” My question was honest,
the answer, dismissive.
Is eating or abstaining from Kitniyot the most critical issue facing the Jewish People today? Allevai- it should only be! Nevertheless, it is symptomatic of a greater issue: Are we One People or not? If so, why don’t we act more like it?
All problems can be solved, some more easily than others; it just takes a strong enough desire, creativity and incentive to do so.
When Rabbi Issachar Dov of Belz (1854-1926) was asked by a student about the Talmudic teaching that the Messiah would not arrive on Erev Shabbat do to the problems that would arise with Shabbat (Ervin 43a/b), the rabbi replied: “If only he should arrive on Erev Shabbat, we would find an answer for it!”
Permission can be found for Mashiach to arrive on Shabbat but not for Ashkenazi Jews to eat Kitniyot on Pesach? Really?? Dayeinu!
Ask your rabbi about it and be prepared for quite a story.