Pesach Kitniyot Rebels Roil Rabbis As Some Ashkenazim Follow New, Permissive Ruling

By Nathan Jeffay

Published April 01, 2009, issue of April 10, 2009.
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In Tel Aviv, shortly before Passover, David Cohen was mulling over his holiday menu. “I’m thinking of making sushi,” he said.

His plan reflects more than just growing Israeli enthusiasm for Japanese food; it reflects a new polarization on one of the most controversial of Passover-related issues — kitniyot.

Cohen, a beer brewer in his 40s, is an Ashkenazic Orthodox Jew, yet he plans to eat a food shunned on Passover by most observant Ashkenazim. Rice — a key ingredient in sushi — is not in the biblically banned category of hametz, or leavened cereal grain. Religiously, if not taxonomically, it falls within the family of legumes that in Hebrew is known as kitniyot.

Sephardic Jews eat them on Passover, but Ashkenazic rabbis banned them centuries ago because they resemble leavened food when they swell up.

More and more foods have been classified as kitniyot in recent years, as Ashkenazi rabbinic positions have hardened across a wide expanse of Halacha, or traditional religious law. Of late, however, something of a rebellion has erupted among pockets of Modern Orthodox Jews who have decided to eat kitniyot.

“Why should we uphold a meaningless restriction when the Torah permits us to eat kitniyot?” Rabbi David Bar-Hayim of Jerusalem asked rhetorically in an interview with the Forward. Bar-Hayim made history two years ago by formally lifting the ban on kitniyot in the Holy Land. His authority is invoked among the growing ranks of new kitniyot-eaters like Cohen.

According to some experts on changes in religious law, we are witnessing the beginning of the end for the ban on kitniyot in Israel. “In another generation, people in Israel won’t even know what you are talking about,” said Rabbi Donniel Hartman, co-director of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute.

For many observant Ashkenazim here, the kitniyot prohibition is a long-standing pet peeve. “This was a much easier process before I moved to Israel,” said Michael Davis, a recent British immigrant interviewed while shopping for Passover in a Tel Aviv supermarket.

For most of the year, Israel is the capital of kosher, offering the word’s easiest consumer experience for observant Jews. Come Passover, however, many of those same consumers find shopping interminably complex.

Beginning a few days before Passover, Israeli shops overflow with items certified “kosher for Passover,” like those in Diaspora Jewish neighborhoods. But in Israel, traditional Ashkenazim must read the fine print on every item. A growing number of products are labeled “Suitable for kitniyot-eaters only.”

In part, the confusion is caused by manufacturers using kitniyot in ever-more adventurous Passover products. The other cause is the constantly swelling list of items banned by Orthodox rabbis as kitniyot.

“The attitude in the last few decades has changed and become stricter to the point of absurdity,” said kitniyot expert Daniel Sperber, a professor of Talmud at Bar Ilan University. Recent additions to the kitniyot list, he said, include cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil and even hemp.

Opponents of the growing list point out that many products now deemed kitniyot, like sweet corn and soybeans, were unknown to the medieval sages whom today’s rabbis claim to follow, and therefore cannot be covered by their prohibition.

Thanks to the growing stringency, a traditional Ashkenazi in the store where Davis was shopping would have to avoid such un-legumelike products as chewing gum and chocolate spread, along with most cooking sauces.

Bar-Hayim argues that maintaining practices unique to Ashkenazic Jews in Israel is undesirable. By definition, he said, the Jewish state should find Jews more “united in their religious practice,” not “living here as if they are in the old country.”

For backing he cited the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of rabbinic law, which states that a Jew moving to a new area should adopt the customs of the new community rather than cling to the old ones. And since the kitniyot restriction is European and was never widely observed in the Middle East, he reasons, it holds no weight in Israel.

His ruling has provoked widespread rabbinic fury. “People have been keeping this tradition for over 600 years,” former Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef said in a lecture last month. “Those who kept it were great people. What, we should tell them to give up their traditions?”

To Bar-Hayim, the critics’ approach is irrationally attached to the past and is “not halachic,” possibly even “anti-halachic.” “Just as it is forbidden to allow what is prohibited, it is forbidden to prohibit what is allowed,” he said.

The debate runs deep, even dividing some families. Eliyahu Skozylas, a Jerusalem software engineer, will be eating kitiyot this Passover for the third consecutive year, but his wife refuses. It is, he admits, a “major source of tension in our home.”

Bar-Hayim’s ruling and his reasoning closely echo a 20-year-old halachic ruling by the Israeli Conservative movement. David Golinkin, head of the Conservative rabbinical college the Schechter Institute, wrote in 1989 that all Israelis can eat kitniyot “without fear of transgressing any prohibition.”

Some scholars predict that a combination of rabbinic rulings and demographics will eventually make the kitniyot ban a thing of the past in Israel. “The classic characteristics of halachic change” are already discernible on the issue, Hartman said. For example, large numbers of Ashkenazim — himself included — draw a fine distinction by eating kitniyot “derivatives” but not kitniyot.

The “disintegration of the divide between Ashkenazi and Sephardi” will play a significant part, Hartman said. Already there is “not a single family in the country without a Sephardi member,” and Sephardim are more influential than ever in national culture. He stressed that this development will be a result of Ashkenazic-Sephardic mixing in Israel and will not affect practice in the Diaspora.

Other experts predict that the kitniyot tradition will endure, preserved by a combination of religious traditionalism and multiculturalism. “There’s a reassertion of ethnic pride, with people feeling it’s okay to do things differently to others and to celebrate diversity,” said Bar-Ilan University Jewish studies professor Adam Ferziger.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com






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