As a kid growing up in a small Connecticut community, shopping for Passover foods was an adventure. At the local Food Fair, we were lucky to find anything more than matzah, matzah meal, canned macaroons, and matzah ball soup mix. My father would sometimes augment the supply with a visit to the famous [well, famous if you’re a Jew in the Connecticut hinterlands] Crown Market in West Hartford. He would pick up a variety of delicacies for the Seder table and the long week of matzah. Of course, he had to purchase those odd jellied lemon slices of many colors. He’d also get some sort of egg kichel – flavorless donut hole looking baked goods made of mostly air. He’d get those fabulous Barton chocolate covered almonds that pull your fillings out and then the chopped liver, a shank bone (though I remember there were years when the stand in was a chicken neck, otherwise called the heldzl).
Today, a trip to any market in Newton or Watertown will reveal not just end caps, but whole rows of foods kosher for Passover: cookies, cakes, noodles, soups, candies, all certified for the holiday! I love it, and I’m sure that this year, as in all previous years, I will end up with some items in the pantry that never quite got to the table, and will remain in the pantry until I surreptitiously toss them out (after recycling the cardboard, of course).
All of those food choices obscure part of the Passover message. When we fled Egypt, moving from slavery to freedom, we had too little time for bread to rise, and so grabbed it right off the fire. Matzah is supposed to be a reminder of how little we had, not a challenge to mix with 2 dozen eggs to bake into a marble cake. After all, in the Haggadah, matzah is called lechem oni, the bread of affliction.
So what can we eat? Most of the rabbis who lived ca. 70- 220 CE ruled that only five species of grain, including wheat and barley, may be used to bake matzah. When mixed with water, those grains ferment and becomechametz (which is prohibited on Passover by the Torah) if not baked within 18 minutes. Yeast converts sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol by-products, creating bubbles which raise the dough. Yeast is often included in many baked goods like bread, as well as alcohol. Buns, cakes, cookies, crackers, cereals, pancakes, doughnuts, and waffles may all contain yeast.
Ok, so this part I get. The Torah is clear about getting rid of Chametz and not using any of those 5 grains. But no one knows when or why legumes were added to the list of foods that are prohibited on Passover. Legumes, otherwise known as kitniyot like chickpeas and peanuts and peas and kidney beans, are not grains. Like rice and corn, and unlike the five grains, they do not ferment when they come into contact with water – they rot. So why did some authorities prohibit them? It seems like it was an Ashkenazi way to be as stringent as possible. Perhaps they worried about minuscule bits of grain mixing in to legume harvests. Perhaps they thought Jews would get confused between legumes and grains… Either way, they prohibited their consumption on Passover.
Sephardic Jews never accepted the Ashkenazic obsessiveness about chametz and kitniyot. They’ve always allowed rice, hummus, and other legume-based dishes. Meanwhile, Ashkenazic Jews made up a ton of reasons for not doing what the Sephardic Jews did.The large number of explanations for not eating kitniyot proves that no one knew the real reason. Some went so far as to call the prohibition a minhag shtut – a stupid custom. Many halachic authorities believe that we are required to eliminate such baseless customs. Nevertheless, today most Ashkenazi Jews outside of Israel refrain from eating kitniyot on Passover.
What’s a Jew to do? The only reason to observe this custom is the desire to preserve an old custom. But this desire does not override everything mentioned above. Therefore, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim are permitted to eat legumes and rice on Pesach without fear of transgressing any prohibition. Ashkenazim who want to observe the original custom can refrain from eating rice and legumes on Pesach, but can still use oil made from legumes as well as all the other foods forbidden over the years, such as peas, garlic, mustard, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.
Every Jewish household across the denominational spectrum has a set of rituals and practices for all things, including Passover. My hope is that in addition to checking to see the kind of food we will eat, we will talk about the bread of affliction. We must not forget that the whole idea of this holiday is not to obsess about rules, but to celebrate freedom!
Do as much or as little as is your family tradition. Just don’t forget to add the content. This is the real deal. The Stern Gang and I wish you a zissen Pesach – a sweet glorious holiday filled with light and love and laughter.