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Commentary on Kitniyot

Michael Lerner's Commentary on Passover Preparations, Chametz and Kitniyot

Date sent: Wed, 5 Apr 2000 08:39:04 -0700
From: Rabbi Michael Lerner
Subject: What Can We Eat at Passover--and How to Prepare

I agree with the recommendations of Benjamin Ben Baruch below, and have ruled in the past that Beyt Tikkun community synagogue follows the Sephardic custom for food on Passover, but respects the homes of members who follow the more strict Ashkenazic custom. However, this does not mean any change in the fundamentals of Passover clean-up, which involves ridding one's house of all the chametz agreed to be chametz by both traditions: wheat, barley, spelt or rice wheat, oats and rye. To ensure that none of these remain in small proportions, we remove all plates (exception: glass plates) used during the rest of the year and use a special set for Passover. We immerse all metal silverware and all metal pots and pans in a large pot of boiling water. We soak all glass dishes for 3 days, changing the water each day. And we cover wood surfaces which might have absorbed chametz with paper, aluminum foil, plastic or something before using them as surfaces for the holiday.

However, I am even more worried about the excesses of focus on kashering one's kitchen that often becomes so prominent in Passover preparation that one forgets the central way to remove chametz: the focus on one's own internal expansiveness and ego inflation. The goal of preparation is to clean out the parts of us that have gotten out of proportion so that we no longer feel ourselves connected to each other, equally caring about the other six billion people on the planet, and somehow imagining that our own lives are so very much more important than that of everyone else. Cleansing chametz is primarily about that inner spiritual work of cleaning out the ways we have distorted our own inner consciousness, and this must take precedence over every other form of preparation for Passover. This is the tradition among Hasidim, and we at Beyt Tikkun hold that our branch of Jewish Renewal is really Neo-Hasidism, and we follow this tradition of ridding ourselves of ego-expansion as the primary housecleaning we do for Pesach. But when we then get to these other details, we follow the practices above and those described below.

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Benjamin Ben Baruch's "Rice for Passover" Commentary on Kitniyot

The "Rice for Passover" Campaign: A Proposal to Foster Jewish Unity
by Benjamin Mordecai Ben-Baruch

Benjamin Mordecai Ben-Baruch is a former principal in the United Hebrew Schools of Metropolitan Detroit and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation and also of the Progressive Jewish Voice.


I am asking you to join the "Rice for Passover Campaign" by placing rice (or other qitniyot) on the seder table next to Elijah's cup to symbolically indicate our vision of a Jewish community that acts affirmatively to promote tolerance and mutual respect of different customs and that acts decisively against institutionalized forms of discrimination and racism within our community.

Eastern and Central European Jews traditionally do not eat rice, beans or similar items on Passover while Jews from other parts of the world prepare traditional Passover dishes from these items. Why? In the following short essay I attempt to answer this question and provide some guidelines for celebrating Passover now that Jews from all over the world live together in the same communities. I rely to a large extent on a responsum (tshuvah) from the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel (affiliated with the Masorti/Conservative movement).

Introduction and Definition of Qitniyot

There is a strange custom of unknown origin and of unknown halakhic purpose or reason among Jews of European origin to prohibit the eating of qitniyot on Passover. Qitniyot, usually translated as "legumes", is a rabbinic (and not a botanical) category of foods that includes rice, beans, chick peas (humus), peas, soy products (including tofu or bean curd), vanilla beans, cola beans, wild rice, peanuts, maize, caraway seeds, potatoes, garlic, radishes, coffee, poppy seeds, sesame, mustard, sunflower seeds, etc. (There is no single agreed upon list of the "forbidden" items in this category which adds to the confusion.) Essentially, the category of qitniyot includes virtually all food items not included within the five prohibited grains, which over the years since the 13th century have been declared "prohibited" to European Jews by one or more rabbinic authorities. The five grains which can be used to make halah, and therefore can become hamaitz and are prohibited on Passover are:

  • Hitim - wheat [Triticum durum and vulgare]
  • Se'orim - 6- and 4-rowed barley, [Hordeolum sativum and vulgare]
  • Kusmim - {Even Shoshan=Triticum dicoccum, J Cohen=spelt}emmer/lesser spelt/ rice wheat [Triticum dicoccum]
  • Shibbolet Shu'al - {Even Shoshan=Avena; J Cohen=oats}2-rowed barley [Hordeolum distichum]
  • Shippon - {Even Shoshan=Secale=rye, J Cohen=rye} spelt wheat [Triticum spelta].

These are the only items which can become hamaitz. While there is virtually total rabbinic agreement since Talmudic times that these Biblical Hebrew terms comprise the sum total of items which can become hamaitz, there is not agreement regarding the proper translation of the terms kusmim and shibbolet. Some authorities include oats in the above list but it is doubtful whether oats should be included. Cereal foods such as buckwheat ("kasha") and grains such as rye are sometimes mistakenly included in the above group because of mistranslations of the Hebrew or upon modern Hebrew usages which should not be applied to terms in their Biblical contexts. [NOTE: This does not make rye breads made of a combination of rye and wheat flour kosher for Passover.]

For years I have had a "Rice for Passover" campaign. I believe that it is time to have a unified halakhah that facilitates all Jews freely and comfortably eating at each other's homes on Passover. This Ashkenazi prohibition was originally promulgated by mistake and there is no reason to perpetuate this custom other than it has become traditional. On the other hand, there are many reasons to abolish this custom. Maintaining the prohibition against eating qitniyot serves to perpetuate the power and influence of the worst segments of the Ashkenazi clerical establishments, implicitly denigrates Sephardic customs and traditions, and stifles the natural and desirable process of incorporating Sefardi traditions into the traditions of all Jews. Personally, I recommend that all Ashkenazi Jews show their acceptance in principle of such a change by placing qitniyot on Elijah's place-setting regardless of whether they personally are accustomed to eating qitniyot.

Proposed Modern Practice

To those who feel that eating qitniyot violates the feeling of Pesah and the customs they practice, I still recommend the following:

  • (1) place qitniyot on Elijah's plate to symbolize the fact that you are acting out of a feeling towards your own personal and family traditions and NOT out of acceptance of misguided rabbinic rulings that were wrong and foolish when they were promulgated and which today are divisive;
  • (2) place qitniyot on Elijah's plate to symbolize a vision of a time to come very soon when there will be unity among the different Jewish communities (even while different traditions are preserved as customs);
  • (3) follow the wise recommendations of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel:
    "Undoubtedly, there will be Ashkenazim who will want to stick to the 'custom of their ancestors' even though they know that it is permitted to eat legumes on Pesach. To them we recommend that they observe only the original custom of not eating rice and legumes but that they use oil from legumes and all the other foods 'forbidden' over the years, such as peas, beans, garlic, mustard, sunflower seeds, peanuts, etc. Thus they will be able to eat hundreds of products which bear the label Kosher for Pesach for those who eat kitniyot/legumes. This will make their lives easier and will add joy and pleasure to their observance of Pesach."

But let us also think about customs we want to preserve and customs we want to change:

As progressive Jews, we do not pass on to our children a 17th, 18th or 19th century version of Judaism or a heder education (which is available in this country today) or most other archaic aspects of Eastern European Jewish culture. Our homes are modern homes and our children observe 20th century Judaism -- and this is good!

"But there is something about that traditional food." Let's stop and think about that for a moment. The traditional European Passover menu is basically not all that traditional. (Remember, the potato wasn't even known in Eastern Europe until 1819! And some authorities put it in the same category as rice and beans and still prohibit this "new" food!) Secondly, it is primarily a menu based upon the culture of an impoverished people who even in the best of times were living in a geographical area where there were very limited food items available.

There is value in preserving old culinary traditions. There is also value in integrating customs from other Jewish communities into our lives and deepening our appreciation of Jewish traditions by eating other traditional foods. Can we do both? Wouldn't there be greater value in doing both -- eating the foods we grew up with and eating other "traditional" foods? I think so.

How can we do this? The first seder might be based on a European culinary tradition, but other foods eaten after that. Perhaps foods from different traditions can be eaten at the same meal. Perhaps one seder can be European and another seder be based on Mediterranean Jewish cuisine. There is no single answer.

In the final analysis, people have to go with their heart and do what gives them the feelings appropriate for the holiday. But we also have to act according to our values. As Progressive Jews we affirm that there is value to our food traditions -- but we also believe that preserving divisions and conflict between Ashkenazim and Sefardim is against our values. Preserving an absolute prohibition against eating qitniyot is therefore against our values. We value the sharing of the many Jewish traditions -- which means preserving all of them and learning to share and participate in many of them. Many of us may choose to not eat qitniyot but we should all recognize that this should be a personal choice and should no longer be a matter of halakhah for anyone.

I have translated large sections of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel's Tshuvah [responsum] regarding the eating of rice and qitniyot on Passover. I summarized sections that I did not translate and have thus "reduced" a 21 page printed Hebrew document to a 5 page English text. While my translation and summary do not substitute for the complete text, you may find it valuable and informative. If you are interested in this translation, please contact me (email:

'Permission is hereby granted by Benjamin Ben-Baruch to reproduce this section on the "Rice for Passover Campaign" as long as it is reproduced in its entirety and for educational or cultural purposes and is being distributed without charge and without an access charge.'

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