Rabbis’ Rules on Rice

By Wendy Belzberg

Published April 18, 2003, issue of April 18, 2003.
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Every year as Passover approaches I wonder why there are so many different points of view about what is acceptable to eat over the holiday. This year I’m asking Wendy: Why can’t I eat rice on Passover?

Sorting the chaff

An accident of birth — or your ancestors’ birth, to be more precise — seems to separate you from your neighbors who are permitted to eat rice during Passover. While rice is technically kosher for Passover, Ashkenazim do not eat it. The explanation given is that rice could be confused with other grains that constitute chometz (leavened foods). Sephardim have a different custom and usually permit rice during Passover. But like all things concerning Judaism, there is room for interpretation and dissent. Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel, recently decreed that Conservative Jews living in Israel are permitted to eat rice during Passover. Who knows, perhaps Ashkenazic Jews worldwide will one day follow suit, making this holiday indeed different than those celebrated by generations past.

* * *

I heard somewhere that a gift of salt and flour brings good fortune to a new home. Is this a Jewish tradition, and is there a blessing that goes with it?

— With a grain of salt

Flour is a new one to me, but there is a Jewish tradition of bringing salt to a new home. Bread and candles are also traditional. Salt is a reminder of the sacrifices that took place during the Temple era; bread symbolizes an abundance of food, and candles represent light and joy. All are lovely symbols and gestures. For the record, wishes for a sweet and robust life accompanied by a box of Godiva chocolates seems just as thoughtful — maybe more. Blessings associated with dedicating a new home are said when the mezuza is placed on the doorpost, the most important ceremony associated with moving.

* * *

On a recent trip to Egypt I visited the pyramids. Am I to believe that the pyramids are the handiwork of the Jews we read about each Passover who were slaves in Egypt? Also, I was taught that all Jews at that time lived in Egypt. If so, were they the forebears of us all?

— Monuments to slavery?

Your second question is slightly less difficult to answer than the first. According to the Bible, all of the Jews at the time were in Egypt although, according to rabbinic understanding, not all were slaves. Which is not to say that every Jew is descended from those who made the exodus from Egypt. There have been plenty of conversions and intermarriages along the way.

As for the first part of your question, the task of mediating among the rabbis, Charlton Heston and National Geographic is too big even for me. Suffice it to say that opinions and beliefs vary about who built the pyramids and when. I don’t believe there is a conclusive answer to your query. The good news is that the answers depend on the power of interpretation — which is what the reading of the Passover Haggada is about. As we are reminded every year at the Seder, asking the question is more important than finding the answer.

* * *

At a recent family gathering, one of my sisters asked her husband to take a picture of our family: my parents, siblings and the grandchildren. No spouses. My wife felt slighted and thought that everyone should have been included. Were we insensitive?

— Picture imperfect

Perhaps it would have been more diplomatic had your sister started with a full group shot and then (allegedly on a whim) pared it down to your immediate family. I can understand how your wife could have been hurt. Having said that, I have a message for her: Grow up! Your parents and siblings predate her arrival, even your courtship. If your wife can’t understand that, the problem is hers.

Write to “Ask Wendy” at 954 Lexington Avenue #189, New York, N.Y. 10021 or at wendy@forward.com.

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