By Simon Rocker
March 22, 2010
There is a growing lobby to rescind the ban on kitniot for Ashkenazim over Pesach - as this article which appeared in our Passover supplement explains:
The annual pre-Pesach blitz on the supermarket can prove an ordeal for even the mosthardened shopper. As you zigzag your trolley through the overcrowded aisles, you struggle to keep an eye on your children trying to add to its bulging contents by slipping in ever more chocolates and sweets. Every so often, as you park beside a shelf, the little Victor Meldrew in your brain cries “I don’t believe it!” as you see the price of coffee or tea.
Finally, when you have negotiated the queues, picked yourself up off the floor after being handed the bill and are about to claim your boxes from the packers, there is one final irritation.You have to put back one of the products, because you had failed to notice the label reading: “contains kitniot”.
Kitniot is the generic term for legumes and pulses — peas, beans, chickpeas, lentils — which Ashkenazim traditionally refrain from eating over Pesach. Soya, in particular, is widely used in food manufacture.
The ban on beans occurred relatively late and there is certainly no precedent in the Talmud. It is first recorded in the 13th century and the origins are unclear. One explanation is that in medieval times, peas and beans were used for flour, so products made from these flours could be confused with those made from chametz. Generally, we don’t cook with bean flour these days, although dosas, the savoury pancakes you’ll find in Indian vegetarian restaurants, are made from chickpea flour.
Another explanation is that pulses were stored in sacks also used for wheat or other grains that could become chametz, so there was a risk of contamination.
Not every rabbi was convinced of the necessity for a bean ban and Rabbi Yerucham, in the 14th century, called it “foolish”. But once entrenched, a custom is difficult to dislodge.
Just over 20 years ago, Rabbi David Golinkin, of the Conservative Schechter Institute in Israel, issued a ruling permitting kitniot. His reasons included that it “detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods”; it “causes exorbitant price rises”: and it causes divisions among ethnic groups in Israel, since Sephardim eat pulses and rice over Pesach anyway. Ashkenazim who wanted to preserve the “custom of their ancestors” could avoid legumes if they wanted, he said, but still use oils and other kitniot extracts.
But now the pro-kitniot lobby has spread even to Orthodox circles. Three years ago, the Beth Din of Israel’s Shiloh Institute, headed by Australian-born Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, ruled that kitniot should be allowed for Ashkenazim on Pesach in Israel, too. The explanations for the ban were “not convincing”, wrote Rabbi bar Hayim and the definition of kitniot had become more stringent over the years.
“Few Ashkenazi Jews today would eat peanuts or use peanut oil on Pesach, but as recently as 40 years ago, peanuts were permitted by all rabbinical authorities,” he observed. “Often there were economic interests at work, pushing for ever more stringent definitions of kitniot, to create a market for a particular product. Products that were previously kosher were banned.”
He also stressed the desirability of promoting unity in Israel, so Ashkenazim could dine in the homes of kitniot-eating Sephardi neighbours at Pesach.
If the unity argument carries weight in Israel, it should apply to the diaspora too, since post-war immigration from the Middle east has created more diverse Jewish populations in Europe.
But there is another compelling reason to bring back beans. Bean-based diets in the Mediterranean and north Africa are among the healthiest in the world and rabbis surely have a responsibility to promote good eating habits among Jews. Beans will also help to supply the fibre that many miss over Pesach, resulting in the discomfort of “matzah stomachs” which detract from the pleasure of the festival.
And finally, allowing kitniot will make life much easier for those wondering what to bring to the office for lunch — hummus is ideal for spreading on matzah.