Because of all its restrictions, Passover is a time wrought with tension over the topic of food. Food may seem to be a trivial thing to have tensions over, but hey, we’re Jews. Our lives revolve around food!
As I’ve elaborated in the past, “Passover kashrut” is even crazier than regular kashrut in every possible sense; for seven (or outside Israel–eight) days, we can’t eat any product made of one of the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats) that isn’t matzah, and the restriction is so severe that we have to actually kasher our kitchens and use special dishes and utensils for Passover to avoid even the tiniest amount of chametz (leavened grain) being found in our food.
For those of us of Ashkenazi origin, however, there’s a whole additional layer. You see, because the five grains used to be stored together with things like corn, rice, and legumes, and processed in the same manner, my dear ill-advised ancestors were concerned that some of the forbidden grains might get mixed up with those other products, and therefore forbade the consumption of all of them, just to be sure. These other products are referred to as “kitniyot,” which in modern Hebrew refers to legumes.
And of course, there is a long-standing debate as to what exactly counts as kitniyot and what does not. There are two main opinions: one is that it’s only what was included in the original list of restrictions, and one is that it’s anything that can be ground into a flour that could theoretically make something resembling a grain product. The weird thing is that most rabbinical authorities hold somewhere in between. Here in Israel, bakeries and restaurants have excelled at Passover culinary innovation, creating breads and cakes and cookies from potato flour that truly resemble the real thing, and most authorities accept these as being perfectly permissible. These photos were taken by my friend Ari Moshkovski at the English Cake bakery chain shortly before Passover, and believe it or not, none of these products contain even the smallest trace of wheat, corn, or rice:
They even taste half-decent when fresh.
On the other hand, there are things considered kitniyot you would never have imagined anyone would associate with wheat. Like mustard seeds. Peanuts. Pumpkin seeds. Sesame seeds. Some people even include canola oil and quinoa. (Thank God, in our family, we don’t.)
So without bread or other grain products, and without flours or oils derived from common ingredients like corn, soy, and rice, it makes our culinary options on Passover quite limited.
And hell hath no fury like a hungry Jew.
Now, there are some Ashkenazim who have an established custom of eating derivatives of kitniyot. This opens up the possibility of eating things with oils or starches made from kitniyot, and that makes life a lot easier.
In the USA, where the vast majority of the Jewish population is Ashkenazi, most of the kosher-for-Passover products available cater to the Ashkenazi population and are therefore kitniyot-free. But in Israel, half the population is non-Ashkenazi, and the majority of the Ashkenazim are not religious and don’t particularly care about the kitniyot restriction. There are a few communities from Morocco that don’t eat kitniyot either, but even so, that leaves a rather small subset of us who won’t consume kitniyot during Passover. The factories and restaurants, particularly in areas without large concentrations of religious Ashkenazim, have little incentive to cater to our needs, so the majority of products on the shelves are non-kitniyot-free and therefore off-limits to us.
This makes a lot of Ashkenazim in Israel get their panties in a wad. Every single year around Passover time there is much grumbling and gnashing of teeth over this, and calls to cancel the kitniyot restriction once and for all. After all, it’s an old-fashioned restriction–a custom that achieved halakhic status because it was so widely observed in the community, but nonetheless, with relatively little halakhic weight. We know this because we do not treat kitniyot like chametz at all. We are allowed to cook it and feed it to our Sephardic guests in the same utensils we use for our food on Passover. Halakhically speaking, kitniyot can be “nullified,” not in sixty as with the rules about regular kashrut, but in a majority. Meaning if more than half the product is something else, and the taste of the kitniyot product is not easily discernible, it doesn’t count as kitniyot.
So we know that it’s not really chametz, and the holiday is restrictive enough when it comes to food, and it’s annoying, and why must our lives be needlessly made difficult?
But honestly, I think the whole argument is pretty ridiculous.
Yes, it’s a custom that may no longer have relevance, and yes, it does make our lives a little difficult.
But it’s just a week.
The principle that binds us to the custom is “minhag avoteinu b’yadenu”–the custom of our forefathers must be observed by us, unless there is a truly compelling reason to cancel it. And as much as everyone complains, there really is no compelling reason. You can live perfectly well on fruits, vegetables, unprocessed meats, eggs, and dairy for a week. Matzah, potatoes and sweet potatoes are perfectly acceptable sources of carbohydrates. Those who have particularly restrictive diets due to food allergies, veganism/vegetarianism, or illness can easily be granted permission to eat kitniyot on a case-by-case basis. My mother-in-law is here for Passover, and she is vegetarian and allergic to wheat, corn, and all kinds of nuts. My husband–as a rabbi–granted her halakhic permission to eat kitniyot, but she hasn’t needed to take advantage of it.
I think there are two issues that drive people to make a big deal over this. One, I think, is that the Rabbinate is overly careful at best–lazy at worst–about product labeling. A few years ago I bought a can of applesauce that listed its ingredients as 100% apples, and the kashrut stamp said it was “for consumers of kitniyot only.”
Seriously? Even if a tiny bit of corn or soy or whatever somehow got mixed in, it is surely nullified in the majority. I was so annoyed about this that I forced Eitan to ask a senior rabbi about it, and the rabbi told us it was fine for us to eat. Even in cases where there are actually kitniyot derivatives in the product on purpose, they may often be nullified in the majority. But the Rabbinate marks anything that may have any derivative of kitniyot in it as being kitniyot-only. And because we non-experts don’t actually know enough details to know whether the kitniyot is nullified or not, we just don’t eat all of them, leaving us with a relatively narrow selection of products to choose from. We feel like an oppressed minority, forced to look on as our Sephardic brethren happily consume products we might actually be able to eat but can’t because the Rabbinate couldn’t be bothered to label them accurately.
The second issue is that people eat a lot of processed foods and feel at a loss when most of those foods are suddenly off-limits to them. We don’t eat a whole lot of processed food in my home, but there are a few things that we use regularly, like mayonnaise or canned tomato sauce, that are hard to find kitniyot-free (because they are usually made with soybean or corn oil), and it’s annoying.
But you know, Lubavitcher Hassidim have even more extreme restrictions. In addition to kitniyot, they can’t eat any fruit or vegetable that hasn’t been peeled first (and therefore can’t have fruits or vegetables that can’t be peeled), and they can’t eat matzah (or any product made of matzah meal) that has come into contact with liquid. This rules out the precious matzah ball dumplings that are the one redeeming feature of traditional Ashkenazi Passover cuisine.
So it’s pretty much eggs, chicken, and (peeled) potatoes all week. And are they complaining?!
(Well, probably. It’s our #1 coping mechanism, after all. But still.)
Basically, it comes down to this: it’s an annoying restriction that may not really be necessary, and maybe one day in the future when we have a strong enough halakhic authority that the vast majority of Jews accept (…basically, the Messiah. 😛 ) we might cancel it once and for all.
But in the meantime… it’s not really that big a deal. I know this may be hard for people to believe, but they’re not gonna die from a week without hummus.