An array of legumes on the Kitniyot Liberation Front Facbebook page. It posts "Kitniyot (legumes) are not chameitz. This movement is dedicated to liberating all Jews who wish to be free of this questionable custom that causes needless divisions between families and friends." Image from Facebook

On Passover, rice might be nice

(RNS) This is what happens to me, every year, during Passover.

I go through many moments of ethnic confusion.

I ask myself: Where were my ancestors from?

By the fourth day of Passover, I call my father, and I ask him to review our family tree with me.

"Where, exactly, is our family from?"

"Vilna," he says. "What the Lithuanians call Vilnius. The capital of Lithuania. The Jerusalem of Europe!" he waxes poetic.

By the sixth day of Passover, I remember that my late mother had once said that her family was from Munkascz, in Hungary.

She must have got it wrong.

My maternal grandfather, I am sure, was from Aleppo, Syria.

As modern Zionism founder Theodor Herzl once said (yes, in a different context): “If you will it, it is no dream.”

So, this is what you know about keeping kosher for Pesach.

No leavened products — bread, donuts, bagels, pasta, pizza.

(Great spiritual interpretation of "no leaven:" leaven is yeast that has expanded, or has become puffed up.

When our egos become "puffed up," that is a sign that we are still enslaved to our inner Pharaohs.)

But, Ashkenazic Jews go one step further.

For centuries, they have refrained from indulging in rice and legumes ("kitniyot") during Passover.

Sephardim have no such "legume-phobia," and they eat beans, as well as rice, during Passover.

But over the past few years, there has been a revolution in how Jews think about cuisine for Passover.

It is the cry of those who seek redemption from the custom of avoiding kitniyot, and who are ready to walk the way of rice.

And so, for those Jews who are ready to embrace kitniyot, and to eat rice, soy, and other assorted legumes during Passover, let me strengthen your resolve to do so.

A variety of legumes. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Eight reasons (one for each day of Pesach) to support that decision:

  1. There is no mention in the Bible of a prohibition against legumes. It says "leaven." Period.
  2. There is no mention in the Talmud of a prohibition against legumes.
  3. The prohibition against legumes seems to have come from France in the 12th century. No one knows exactly why they prohibited legumes. There are about 10 reasons cited for this custom, which is proof enough that this is, in fact, a bit of a stretch.
  4. Maimonides thought that it was a "stupid custom." (Yes, he was a Sephardic Jew. You got a problem with that?)
  5. With the creation of the State of Israel, and the ingathering of the exiles into the land of Israel, we should be emphasizing the unity of the Jewish people, not those ethnic differences that separate us.
  6. Not to mention the fact that in Israel itself, the preponderance of Ashkenazic-Sephardic mixed marriages makes Pesach a nuisance.
  7. And if we make Pesach so restrictive and so onerous, there is the real and present danger that otherwise committed and caring Jews will simply walk away from even trying to observe the festival at all.
  8. By elevating a Sephardic way of observing Pesach, we are "repenting" for having created an (a new term, here) "Ashke-normative" American Judaism.

Let's face it: our Judaism has centered on central and Eastern European ancestors, narratives, languages, and folklore.

The danger of this is that we ignore the lived experience of so many Jews — especially the fact that the early Jewish settlers in America were, by and large, Sephardim from the Iberian Peninsula.

Now, the reasons for eating rice and legumes will not work for every Jew — and, frankly, they shouldn't.

First: The whole "it's not in the Bible, so I'm not going to do it" argument.

While that might be true, it is not true enough.

Contemporary Judaism is not a biblical religion. Let's make a short list of Jewish things that are not in the Bible.

  • Hanukkah.
  • Purim.
  • Lighting Shabbat candles.
  • Bar mitzvah — and certainly not bat mitzvah.

Neither, by the way, is the Passover seder.

It's not only that Judaism is allowed to grow and change; it must.

Second: In a time when Jews are all too flippant about abandoning their rituals, perhaps we should not be militantly trying to remove Jews from their past.

Third: The ban on eating legumes for Ashkenazic Jews helps us maintain the diversity of Jewish customs.

There are numerous variations in Jewish traditions and liturgy: Ashkenazim (and even here, between German Jews, Polish Jews, and Hungarian Jews), Sephardim (and even here, between Turkish Jews and Greek Jews), Middle Eastern Jews (and even here, between Moroccan Jews, Tunisian Jews, Yemenite Jews, and Iraqi Jews).

Why should all Jews have the same traditions? Like the coat that the biblical Joseph wore, Judaism is multicolored and richly textured.

But: If you want to have a rice, legume-ish Pesach, and be liberated from the Pharaoh of all-too-strict-and-historically-flimsy customs, as your rabbi (or, as one of your rabbis), I will tell you: feel free to do so.

After all, it was none other than Maimonides who said that abstaining from legumes was a "stupid custom."

We're talking Maimonides here.

I'm just saying ....

Whatever you eat, or don't eat — have a great and sweet Pesach.


  1. It would also allow kosher Chinese restaurants to remain open during the holiday. Just drop or adapt the wontons and noodles and you’re good to go.

  2. Do they close on any holidays?
    Places which cater to Chinese patrons usually have rice noodles on their menus. Kind of rare in your average suburban takeout joint but ever-present in Chinatowns.

  3. I see a cartoon bubble over the head of two Cuban mice talking with each other. One mice says to the other: “Black beans and rice? You mean we’ll be eating los Moros y Cristianos?”

  4. I see that most of the responses here are of the lighter vein, which is often a welcome refreshment on this site. However, my natural inclination towards the more serious compels me to note what I consider a most interesting remark on the part of Mr. Salkin that has nothing to do with the menu for Passover; “Contemporary Judaism is not a biblical religion.” I take Mr. Salkin’s word for it. Though I’m not surprised by the claim or the context, I am disheartened by it.

  5. It’s a fact. Look up Rabbinic Judaism. It’s closer, at least.

    I share Rabbi Salkin’s dilemma. I didn’t grow up with kitniyot–in fact, never heard the term until I was middle-aged–but I like green beans and I serve them. Period.

  6. I was not disputing the Rabbi, merely making an observation about spirituality and what I believe a biblically framed perspective offers over and above other types of practice. As a Christian I’m not bound by dietary laws, but I’m sure that even within the context of the Mosaic Law, green beans are just fine. Enjoy.

  7. If you’re a vegetarian, Passover can be really tough without rice and legumes. Also, a group in Israel sad that marijuana may be considered kitnyot. So Now I can smoke pot during Passover. (Just kiddng)

  8. Are you saying Jews should not celebrate Purim or Hannukah and not light Sabbath candles. These are all part of being Jewish for me.

  9. Not at all. I am rather dismayed at, though not disputing, the Rabbi’s declaration that contemporary Judaism is not a biblical religion. I find no fault with the rituals and practices of the Jewish faith, though some of those rituals postdate the closing of the Jewish Canon. Certainly, some Christian rituals and practices evolved after the Gospels and Epistles were given. These are not the issue. I would think, however, that the Jews as God’s covenanted people would frame their faith structure primarily around their received scriptures, Rabbi Salkin’s declaration seems to call that into doubt. My concern is not based on an attitude of judgment, but inside on the fear that the Jewish people may be forsaking something that might redound to their spiritual benefit.

  10. Unsure just what you mean by “. . .closing of the Jewish Canon.” Judaism is an evolving religion. There is tradition but in today’s religious scene I’d hardly call it “fixed canon.” There are 613 mitzvot, one of which is to eat Matzah on the seder night and for the entire holiday, and to adjure leaven. This has little to do directly with what you call “received scriptures.” It has to do with understandings developed by the learned rabbis of Babylon who developed the Talmud and with the more recent writers (last 250-300 years) who developed the Shulchan Aruch or “Set Table” of obligations, which are obligatory only on men. They are not obligatory for women with minor exception. All of which is a big distraction from Passover, the celebration of freedom.

  11. My usage of the term “Jewish Canon” refers to the Jewish scriptures from Genesis to Malachi (that is at least the order in the “Old” Testament that I am familiar with). As I do not hold the commentaries of Christian teachers at the same level as I do the “New” Testament, I am surprised that Jews would hold rabbinical commentaries on the same level as Torah and the Prophets. I think that any well read individual should be able to interpret the biblical texts, with the guidance of God, on their own, always comparing scripture with scripture.

  12. We have a saying, “These and these are the words of the Living God.” Why it says “living God” I don’t know, but it includes all honest scholarship.

    Our books are in a different order from the Christian Bible. We collect them as Torah, Prophets and Writings (Psalms, Proverbs etc.) and end with Chronicles. Check out a Jewish Bible some day. Then there’s the Babylonian Talmud, now available in English. There are responsa over the ages and stories of great rabbis since those days. The list goes on, and “These and these” persist..

  13. I will certainly consider obtaining a Jewish bible to add to my collection of religious literature. In fact, I would be much interested in discovering more about Gamaliel the 1st century Rabbi.

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