Kezayit: Kitniyot

What's this Kezayit thing? Read here.

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Kitniyot2CBS prides itself on the relatively diverse make-up of our community but, like the majority of synagogues in the United States, most of our members identify as Ashkenazim or subscribe to Ashkenazi minhag (custom). For observant Ashkenazi Jews, Pesach (Passover) dietary restrictions are especially onerous. Like other Jews, Ashkenazim refrain from eating hametz (leavened foods) during Passover, but they also eschew kitniyot, a catch-all term used to describe rice, corn, soy beans, peas, lentils, and many seeds. All of these foods are off limits for Ashkenaz Jews during Pesach.

In recent years, there's been much debate about the kitniyot minhag. Should Jews of Ashkenaz provenance continue to practice the prohibition? Or is it high time we put tofu on our Pesach menu? Let's unpack this a bit...and maybe settle any disputes occurring in your kitchens.

First, the ban on kitniyot was only codified in the 16th century; it's a relatively recent minhag. There are competing explanations for its origin, but the general consensus is that rabbis were concerned that European Jews would mistake a hametz flour for a grain flour, thereby unintentionally violating halacha. The rabbis banned anything and everything that might confuse Jews during the holiday. Today, when we can easily tell the difference, is there really any need for the custom to continue?

Second, it's important to remember that minhagim should not be confused with mitzvot. A minhag is not part of written or oral law, and might be widely practiced (e.g., the kitniyot prohibition) or confined to one particular family (e.g., that goofy thing your bubbe did that your dad does and you've started doing, too). Perhaps not surprisingly, many Jews prioritize minhag over halacha, especially if the custom was practiced by their grandparents and parents. You know the score – tradition!

But even the most strict among us should keep the principle of minhag avoteinu beyadeinu ("the minhag of our forefathers remains in our hands") in mind. Even if you're reluctant to reconsider long-held customs, our rabbis are doing just that. On December 24, 2015, the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law & Standards adopted two Responsa (sheelot u-teshuvot,) concerning kitniyot. You can read the full papers here and here, but the summaries are supplied below.

The first of the two responsa was authored by Rabbi David Golinkin, the President of The Schechter Institutes and Past President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he currently serves as Professor of Jewish Law. Rabbi Golinkin's paper does not include a formal psak, but concludes that the kitniyot minhag should be eliminated. It was adopted by a vote of 15-3-4.

The second responsa was authored by Rabbis Amy Levin and Avram Reisner, the Interim Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom (Bridgeport, CT) and Rabbi Emeritus of Chevrei Tzedek (Baltimore, MD), respectively. Their paper was adopted by a vote of 19-1-2. The concluding psak of this rabbinic Responsa is: "In order to bring down the cost of making Pesach and support the healthier diet that is now becoming more common, and given the inapplicability today of the primary concerns that seem to have led to the custom of prohibiting kitniyot, and further, given our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions, more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us, we are prepared to rely on the fundamental observance recorded in the Talmud and codes and permit the eating of kitniyot on Pesach."

It's none of our business what goes on in your kitchen or dining room, but we encourage you to feast on kitniyot this Pesach...if you want to.