I live in Israel, where most people eat “kitniot” on Pesach (Passover) and it can be hard to find non-kitniot products. Can I “break” my family’s tradition of not eating kitniot because it’s so much harder to keep in Israel?
The primary conversation about minhag (custom) in rabbinic literature can be found in the fourth chapter ofPesachim in the Talmud. There, mishna Pesachim 4:1 discusses what responsibilities fall when someone travels between cities that have different customs regarding work on erev Pesach. Evidently, some places had the minhag of not working on that day while others worked until midday. The conclusion suggests one be especially careful in deferring to the stringency of either their destination or their original departure point, rather than simply following the custom of where they are at the time. In other words, one cannot move somewhere else in order to take on a laxity. Rather, one must either accept the stringency of the new place or take the stringency from the original destination. The mishna continues though, and states, “a person must not act differently [from local custom] on account of the quarrels [that might ensue].” If a person were to simply ignore local customs, tension might be created. The conflict between these two ideas is quite powerful. On one hand, who we are and where we come from has important value. We are products of generations of practice. On the other hand, if we are not considerate towards local practice, we can be horribly offensive.
Later in the chapter, the custom of lighting candles on erev Yom Kippur is discussed. Pesachim 4:6 states, “In a place where it is custom to light a candle on erev Yom Kippur – one lights, in a place where it is not custom to light the candle on erev Yom Kippur – one does not light.” Here we learn of a specifically public ritual where the entire community should follow the same custom. If one was to light a candle on erev Yom Kippur in a place where that was not done, one would not only diverge from communal practice, but possibly transform this environment. Imagine a lone candle illuminating an otherwise dark street, or conversely, a lone dark window on a street of glistening homes. The result is that rejecting old custom or taking on new custom is not simply a personal experience; rather, custom is an individual action making up a collective drama.
When an ashkenazi Jew moves from the US to Israel, the temptation to relax one's custom of not eating kitniyot can be great, especially when the majority partakes in kitniyot. There may also be righteous reasons to partake in kitniyot. If you are invited to a home, there may be no greater offense than rejecting a meal offered by your hosts. But to let one's custom fall to the wayside also has repercussions. Minhag is the way through which we manifest the theoretical. The tune that one sings a blessing is important, it provides the person with an avenue to express the blessing. That tune is also minhag. This choreography of ritual (minhag) subsequently imbues halakha with form and meaning.
Regarding this specific question, there are a number of Israeli rabbis who have written on the subject. Two popular teshuvot which allow eating kitniyot are R' David Bar-Hayim's here (Orthodox) and R' David Golinkin's here (Conservative). One should also read Dr. Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky's blog post about the subject. The reason why these teshuvot exist is because the default position is to not eat kitniyot. I also want to echo the words of one of my teachers, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, who says on the subject that Ashkenazi Jews can start eating kitniyot when they also start following the Sephardi custom of saying slichot (penitential prayers) for 40 days, from the first of the month of Elul until Yom Kippur (unlike the Ashkenazim who begin on the Saturday night before Rosh haShannah). Essentially, he suggests that if you are going to take on one Sephardi minhag, you have to accept them all.
One last point. Requesting permission to break a family custom in order to eat kitniyot sounds more like a question of personal halachic practice than a question of “Jewish values.” I would firstly, encourage you to ask your rabbi (or a rabbi you feel comfortable with) regarding what you should do. I do not feel comfortable with providing an answer to a question for halacha l'ma'aseh (practical halacha) on a public internet forum for someone with whom I am not acquainted.
Your question is actually most complex, extending beyond the narrow issue of kitniot and entering into the halachic realm of communal structure, a realm that actually demands much more investigation in our present world.
To start off though, in regard to the specific issue of kitniot itself, I should first direct you to Rabbi Alfred Cohen, "Kitniyot in Halachic Literature, Past and Present," Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society VI which is a very fine article outlining the whole issue. Kitniot, of course, are foodstuffs with which -- while not true chametz -- a custom developed in Ashkenazic (European) Jewish communities to forbid their consumption on Pesach. In this regard, as Rabbi Cohen points out, there is much debate on what foodstuff is included in this custom and this disagreement as to the exact definition of kitniot could be a significant issue in response to your question. The answer may be different depending upon the specific item of kitniot that is the subject of your question. In a similar regard, the answer may also depend upon your specific family custom rather than the general or more prevalent custom. Your family’s history in moving to Israel may also be a factor for the real issue is not kitniot but rather custom.
There is a principle in Jewish Law that custom has the authority of law. Minhag avoteinu Torah, the customs of our forefathers are Torah. See, for example, Rema, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 376:4. What this means, however, is often misunderstood. What it effectively is stating is that once a Jewish community begins a practice, that practice after it has been established over time, becomes binding on the members of the community. There are caveats upon this statement, though. This only occurs, for example, if the practice developed under the watch of someone versed in Jewish Law, thus allowing for the conclusion that it was developed with the consent of this individual or, at least, without his objection. As such, we thereby assume that there must have been a legitimate reason for this custom to have developed and, even as we may now not know the actual original reason, the custom has the force of law, at least to some extent. This parameter is important. While a Biblical law can be overridden, for example, only when life itself is threatened, it may be that a custom could be overridden because of a lesser issue. This could be another matter that needs to be addressed in regard to this question. What exactly is the problem? Inconvenience itself may not be enough of a reason to override a custom but perhaps the exact nature of the problem may be a good reason.
The essential issue, however, is this concept of custom. Most people think that the rules are tied to actual family; in fact, this is not true. The rule is tied to community. One is bound by the practices of his/her community. The question then arises: what happens if someone moves? While there are many factors involved in presenting a correct response to a specific question of this nature, the simple answer is that (a) if someone moves to a place that has no established custom, that person must continue the customs of the place from which he/she came; and (b) if someone is moving to an established place with established customs, the person must generally adopt the customs of the new place. So if, in 1700, an Ashkenazi moved from a community, let us say Krakow, that kept the prohibition of kitniyot to a Sephardic place, let us say Fez, that did not keep this prohibition, it may be that this person would then be able to eat kitniyot on Pesach but the person would then have to adopt all the Sephardic customs. This may be another aspect of this issue in this case. The question may not be whether you can eat kitniyot or not but whether you can now choose to join a Sephardi community and adopt all their customs?
This leads us to the issue of Israel and the multitude of variant communities within this land. At least, that is the situation today but, historically, Israel was originally a Sephardic community. This has led some people to presently argue that since, when the Ashkenazim, first came to Israel, as they were really now entering a Shephardi community, they should have adopted Shephardi customs, as such, these Ashkenazim should have dropped this prohibition of kitniyot. The problem with this argument is that these Ashkenazim did not come as individuals per se but as a group and formed their own community with Ashkenazic rules, right at the beginning, which was their right. In addition, if one would adopt this argument, it would mean that one would have to effectively become a Sephardi beyond the issue of kitniyot. The question, though, is that, given that there is much choice that one would have as to possible communities, what choice does one have in choosing his/her community? It would seem that regardless of what one’s actual family background would be, if a person is now living in a community, under the leadership of a recognized Rabbinic individual who would provide correct halachic guidance, i.e. an appropriate judge of the Torah law, the person would be bound by the customs of this community – and if this community allowed kitniyot or, at least, took more lenient positions of this law, it would not only be okay but it would actually be appropriate to follow the customs of this community in which one lives.
This leads to a final issue. Can a new community structure with new customs be formed given the past family history of its members? We know what happens if an Ashkenazi moved to Fez and what happens if a Sephardi moved to Krakow. We also know what happens if a group of Ashkenazim or Sephardim move to a place without a community. In speaking to other Rabbis, we found it very unclear of what would happen if 5 Jews from Fez and 5 Jews from Krakow came to a new place – how would they establish minhagim? Of course, much would depend on the Rabbi of this new community as his particular conclusions would have more weight. Anyways, you are beginning to see the true complexity of this question.
So, in conclusion, what I would say is what is necessary is for you, as an individual, to recognize that you do not live in a vacuum but rather within the context of a local Jewish community with a Rabbi who provides halachic direction to the community and its members. The answer lies in determining what is your community and following its practices. It may be that you may wish to determine which community you favour based upon its kitniyot rules. That may be your prerogative – but then you are still bound to the general rules of the community as well.
The history of this issue: The prohibition of eating rice and “kitniyot” (basically, legumes) is a position taken by only one authority, Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri, in the Talmud (Tractate Pesachim 114b). The majority of Talmudic Rabbis disagreed with him, and the early post-Talmudic codifications of the law contain no such prohibition. It first reappears as a stringency adopted by some leading Ashkenazic rabbis, beginning with the “Sefer Mitzvot Katan” in the 13th century. It never achieved a full consensus in the main halakhic codifications, but it ultimately became the standard custom of Ashkenazic Jews. The rationale behind the prohibition is that those foodstuffs could also be used in making a bread-like product. Sephardim have never accepted this argument. Maimonides, following the Talmud, states that the fermentation of legumes produces a kind of "spoilage", but not “chametz”. (Hilkhot Chametz U-Matzah 5:1). In sum, for Sephardim, only the five species of cereal grain that can be used to make matzah, i.e. wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt, can turn into chametz (Tractate Pesachim, 35a). Even Ashkenazim recognize that kitniyot are not chametz. Although they do not consume those foods on Pesach, they do not remove them from one’s property, as is done with true chametz.
In its ongoing engagement with Jewish law, the Conservative/Masorti movement has retained the Ashkenazic custom, albeit with the understanding that it functions as a custom, not an immutable law. Therefore, the “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” of the Rabbinical Assembly has authorized some flexibility regarding kitniyot: a vegan may consume them if he deems them vital for health maintenance; peanuts are no longer considered kitniyot, and may be consumed, along with derivatives such as natural, unprocessed peanut butter and peanut oil; and, of course, Sephardim may consume them, since they have no custom barring it. (Summary Index, Committee On Jewish Law and Standards, 7:2, s.v. “Kitniyot”)
The questioner cites convenience as the rationale for contemplating breaking with family tradition. I would not deem that rationale as sufficient. It is not overly difficult to create an ample and satisfying diet for the seven or eight days of Passover, based on the abundance of excellent and seasonal produce available in Israel, and, if the questioner is not a vegan, on the top-quality dairy products available there, let alone eggs, fish, poultry or meat.
There might be other rationales that would be stronger, should other readers raise a similar question. Since the prohibition on the consumption of kitniyot is a matter of family and community tradition, we can acknowledge that some people enter our communities by a process of conversion to Judaism, and are at the point of first founding their family traditions; still others have evolving family identities, because of Sephardic and Ashkenazic partners marrying each other.
The issue of community membership applies on Passover, in a sense analogous to the general issue of membership in a kosher-observant circle. If one intends to invite others to dine on Pesach, and to accept reciprocal invitations, that provides an additional rationale for maintaining a standard of stringency commensurate with one’s communal circle. In theory, a person might see no objection to eating kitniyot, and yet desist, because of these social concerns.
Finally, I would urge that we take a moment to shift focus away from the somewhat technical considerations of the foregoing paragraphs, and to contemplate that the kosher- observant public has witnessed a dramatic and unprecedented proliferation of kosher for Passover products. One could justifiably come away from a shopping trip to a kosher grocery with a nagging sense that we have “overdone it”, with our myriad substitutes for baked goods, breakfast cereals, etc. Among the cherished memories of Passover observance that this author prizes are those of simple fare, enjoyed in the company of loving family and close friends. Regardless of whether one is ultimately more or less stringent with respect to the consumption of kitniyot among Ashkenazic families living in Israel, I would urge that we invest some energies into the mindfulness that will make the consumption of Passover-appropriate foods not an end in itself, but a means towards a savoring of freedom, against towering odds, accomplished with God’s help.
Wishing our questioner, and all of our readers, a “happy and kosher Passover,”
Reform practice, following the standard of the Talmud, permits the eating of rice and legumes during Pesach. We do not take this stand because we disparage custom and tradition. On the contrary: our "rediscovery" of the centrality of ritual observance to Jewish life, described at the outset of this teshuvah, demonstrates that we take the claims of tradition with the utmost seriousness. This Committee, in particular, in its approach to the answering of the she'elot submitted to it, has tended to uphold the standards of traditional practice except in those cases where good and sufficient cause exists to depart from them. And our movement has recognized for nearly two centuries that the prohibition of rice and legumes is just such a case. This observance, which presents a significant burden upon Jews during Pesach, has no halakhic justification: the Talmud clearly rejects the suggestion that rice and legumes are chametz, and the likelihood that our people will confuse legume dishes with chametz dishes is too remote to be taken into seriousconsideration.
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