Thursday, April 10, 2008

Free the Kitniyot!

On Pesah, Jews who observe these things refrain from eating any products made from grains: wheat, barley, oats, and the like. The Ashkenazi world has an additional level of prohibitions against what is called "kitniyot", which are beans, pulses, rice, corn, and the like. Supposedly these could be confused with grains, or get mixed up with grains, or something. (No one is quite sure where or why it came about.) Although kitniyot are not prohibited in the Sephardi world, are not prohibited even within the Ashkenazi world with nearly the same level of stringency as grains, and some authorities have even called it a "stupid custom," it persists in the Ashkenazic world due to a halakhic version of inertia - since it has always been perohibited, it is still prohibited. (A good explanation of the kitniyot issue can be found on Wikipedia.)

When we lived in Israel (95-99) we were aware that the Conservative movement there had published a teshuva (halakhic interpretation) that it was no longer necessary to observe the restrictions on kitniyot, basically because, due to the much larger Sephardi population in Israel, observing it would restrict the ability of Israeli Jews to eat together on the holiday, and since there was no real, compelling reason for it better the Ashkenazi should compromise (for a change).

Being rather a mild type I kind of went half-way with this. For the past several years my custom has been not to rice or beans in their original state, but also not to go crazy getting rid of everything (or buying new, pessadik versions of everything) that has corn in it. A couple of years we happened to buy some matzo that wasn't kosher for passover because it had a kind of oil in it that was kitniyot. And we ate it. I also don't use kitniyot products at the actual seder, more because I usually am hosting people who care about it more than I do.

The reason I'm talking about this on a simplicity blog is because one of the easier and more available ways we can make it through Pesah healthily and frugally, without having to eat meat or cream cheese and jelly sandwiches for a week would be to ignore, or begin the process of moving beyond, the prohibition on kitniyot. I remind you that there for no more compelling reason for this prohibition than that it has always been there. I think it's obvious that, just like during the rest of the year, the judicious use of beans and corn can make the food budget go a longer. And then there's the issue of having to replace a lot of stuff that is only prohibited because it has corn in it.

I'm always hesitant to come across as advocating a less stringent level of observance, because I'm afraid someone is going to say, He said kitniyot wasn't important, so I'm going to eat bread. That's not what I'm advocating, obviously. But if your level of observance is stringent but you are open to halakhic change, you might look at the reasons behind the prohibition against kitniyot, weighs the pros and cons, and maybe you'll might decide that this is a custom better left behind. And if you're a person who observes the prohibition against kitniyot more stringently than kashrut itself, then I would say, better to do the more important mitzvah than to observe something that isn't even a mitzvah.

And altogether I would say, for health, financial, ideological, and peoplehood reasons, the prohibition on kitniyot is something better left behind.

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