Passover, or Pesach, carries the distinction of being the most widely observed Jewish holiday, outperforming even Chanukah. While both are home-based, the magic of Passover lies with the Seder …
Passover, or Pesach, carries the distinction of being the most widely observed Jewish holiday, outperforming even Chanukah. While both are home-based, the magic of Passover lies with the Seder ritual. Its great story iis expressed in the text of the Haggadah—literally “the telling”—its magnificent meal and its involvement of the whole family in exploring the Exodus account, with an emphasis on children’s participation.
But Passover is not all about an open-ended discussion of our liberation from the Egyptian taskmaster’s whip after 210 years of slavery. It is also defined by the myriad of laws and restrictions governing our diet over the eight-day holiday, specifically the prohibition against eating leaven (or “chametz” in Hebrew), foods produced from the five principal grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye.
Alongside this restriction is an added ancient Rabbinic ruling against eating legumes (or “kitniyot” in Hebrew) as they can be ground into millet, thus appearing as flour, which could become mixed with the aforementioned grains and become chametz. This restriction has been seriously adhered to by Ashkenazi Jews, those from mainly European countries. Sephardic Jews—those from North Africa, Spain, Portugal and an array of other countries—follow a different notable Rabbinic authority who allows eating legumes on Passover. Given Israel’s large Sephardic population, there is a dietary divide in which a large group of people do eat legumes, notably rice and beans.
All of this has given rise to an, at times, mind-bending debate, especially in communities outside of Israel, as to whether there is still a Jewish legal basis for this structure given the nature of food production today and widespread Israeli practice. The only argument that keeps it in effect is tradition, that “we uphold the customs of our forbearers.”
Every year, a group of my friends like to challenge me on the logic of maintaining this ostensibly mean measure and edible hardship. It gives rise to a lively debate and I cannot say that I always disagree with their arguments. But some thoughts come to mind in defense of the custom, which is not subject to the same degree of censure or punishment as eating actual chametz.
It should be noted that many people who, during the rest of the year may not be scrupulous in their keeping kosher, are gripped and claimed by the severity of the chametz ban and observe the Passover dietary laws with an unusual intensity.
So, why the affinity or acquiescence to even more of a restrictive diet that borders on an obsession by keeping the Kitniyot custom?
I dare say and opine that it all comes down to a need and a willingness to do something different than what is usual and customary. Kitniyot is very much an edible folkway not unlike other added stringencies that so much of the normative Jewish population has adopted to enhance their ritual observance. Pesach/Passover brings out a penchant for stringency. This is perhaps part of the nature of the holiday: our need to limit and restrict, to feel at first in shackles and a modicum of restraint. After all, Mitzrayim or Egypt comes from the Hebrew word “mitzarim,” namely “the narrows.” And we have thus internalized and also given physical form and expression to that sentiment.
Passover is very much of a dialectical experience at its core. Before we are able to celebrate our deliverance from a long servitude and cross the Red Sea, we first must reflect on previous periods of dire peril that shed the Hebrew people in a desperate light. We must first recall the dark tunnel from which we emerged by the grace and goodness of God Almighty. We were largely helpless and confused during the entire Passover liberation. Sinai was really our moment of power and religious autonomy. Passover is the recognition of our powerlessness against inexplicable evil. It required resignation to Moses’ lead, the divine directive and, ultimately the commemorative restrictions that are enshrined in our holy Torah.
Now, one need not be a slave to a custom that defies easy comprehension. But old habits are hard to shake, and there seems to be some strange pleasure and purpose in the Pesach privations. Enter the kitniyot custom.
One might note that the conservative movement in Judaism opened up to Kitniyot in recent years only to find that it didn’t really take off among their rank and file. Orthodox Jews still remain steadfast with a serious preservationist urge and impulse in their observance of the kitniyot ban. The less we are able to eat, the more compelling the Pesach story. It’s as if we are to deny ourselves until the seventh day of the Passover holiday, when the waters of the sea split and the danger of the pursuing Egyptian army abated. Only then can we reintegrate ourselves into a more plentiful diet and happier existence.
There might be a reasonable link to our current societal situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. Extra measures have been placed upon us to safeguard our health and well-being. Many have argued their logic, compelling medical findings notwithstanding. But restrictions are not purposeless both from a scientific and psychosocial perspective.
There are times when the greater good of community cohesion and safety demands an extra level of stringency and stricture, even to a degree of inconvenience. The lesson from kitniyot, the added measure of dietary demand, even if only an eight-day headache and hardship, might shed some light on the now yearlong triad of still mandated measures expected of all conscientious citizens to protect ourselves from this harmful virus. An added level of care and concern is a common denominator to both the holiday observance and the current pandemic.
Our ability to accept added precautions need not be seen as undue suffering but a responsible attitude to that which will preserve us spiritually and physically.
Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler is a resident of South Fallsburg, NY with 30 years of experience in the Orthodox pulpit, as a bio-ethicist, hospital and hospice chaplain and communal executive. He is the President and CEO of Sayva Associates, an elder care solutions and counseling practice.