Photo: Mark Bonica/Flickr
Jambalaya.Photo: Mark Bonica/Flickr
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A Festive Seder Meal—With a Side of Rice and Beans

As more Jews permit consumption of kitniyot for Passover, the holiday menu continues to expand

Leah Koenig
April 06, 2017
Photo: Mark Bonica/Flickr
Jambalaya.Photo: Mark Bonica/Flickr

This Passover, Jonathan Hartig will try out a new recipe: jambalaya.

Hartig, who co-owns a catering company called J2 Food, will be serving the dish as part of a pop-up Passover dinner in New Orleans. Making jambalaya kosher isn’t difficult: He will use kosher sausage and chicken, and eschew the dish’s usual shrimp. Making jambalaya kosher for Passover is another story: The rice that helps to thicken the saucy stew has long been forbidden on Passover for Ashkenazi Jews like Hartig, who avoid kitniyot—corn, rice, legumes, beans, and a handful of other pantry staples. So even kosher jambalaya traditionally wouldn’t have been kosher for Passover.

But things have changed. Thanks to two recent rulings by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, kitniyot are back on the Passover table for many Ashkenazi Jews after a nearly 800-year hiatus. (The Reform movement also officially permits kitniyot consumption, but Orthodox Jewish law continues to forbid it.)

“I think it is going to feel a bit strange,” Hartig said of serving and eating rice during the holiday; he grew up in a family that thoroughly observed the Passover laws, including not eating kitniyot. “But I’m excited for it.”

He’s not the only one. Across the country, many Conservative Jews are expanding their Seder menus to include chickpeas, corn, and other foods that were formerly taboo.

Most Sephardi Jews—both more and less strictly observant—have always eaten kitniyot during Passover, incorporating fresh fava beans into soup and nutty sesame seeds into charoset, or stuffing lamb with rice. And today, even the most stringently kosher supermarkets will often reserve a designated shelf or two of kosher for Passover-certified kitniyot items to accommodate Sephardi customers.

This fact was an important impetus behind both of the Conservative tshuvot (responsa). The first was an updated version of a paper written in 1989 by Rabbi David Golinkin (and which originally applied only to Jews living in Israel, where the Sephardi community is much larger and more intermixed with Ashkenazim), and the second was newly coauthored by Rabbis Amy Levin and Avram Reisner.

“As a finding of legal fact … it is clear that kitniyot may be eaten on Pesach,” the second ruling states. Further, it says, cooking kitniyot in Passover pans and serving it on Passover plates does not render those dishes unkosher. The reasons, then, why Ashkenazi Jews have avoided kitniyot since the 13th century—that rice and legumes may have been grown near or been processed with, and potentially contaminated by chametz grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, oats), or that these ingredients too closely resemble chametz when cooked and could cause confusion—are ultimately no longer relevant, according to the responsa. In a contemporary marketplace, where flours, rice, and beans are sold in “discrete packages, well marked as to their content,” Levin and Reisner’s ruling states, “there should be no concern of confusing a permission of kitniyot with one of grains and it should be eminently possible to prohibit one while permitting the other.”

Both tshuvot passed with widespread support from the Rabbinic Assembly. But one rabbi of 25 on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, Micah Peltz, voted against both proposed measures. Peltz had multiple objections, including that the ruling was based on matters of convenience rather than ethics and that it would only widen the already existing divisions between Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. Most important, he said, there is value behind the emotional power of longstanding customs. “Customs endure because religion is not always rational,” he wrote last year in an article published by his community’s Jewish newspaper. “Visceral, emotional attachments to practice are an important part of the religious experience.”

Although they were both passed in December 2015, neither of the tshuvot received widespread press until just before last Passover. The impact was rather dramatic: Centuries of tradition were suddenly overturned, leaving little time for either emotional processing or practical application. “I think people were left wondering if it was actually real,” Hartig said. “There was this fear that maybe they’d decide to take it all back!”

A year later, the reality has now had a chance to sink in, and people have had time to figure out if and how it will factor into their kitchens, though there is some lingering uncertainty about what, exactly, the ruling allows and doesn’t allow. As Smitten Kitchen author Deb Perelman wrote on her Facebook wall this year, “Can anyone explain to this very befuddled Jew the current rules on what’s allowed/not allowed on Passover? I have scanned so many wordy articles and complex lists and only want to know: Seeds? Chickpeas? Lentils? Rice? Peas? Corn?” The answer, according to the Conservative rulings, is yes to all.

Some Conservative Jews, of course, rejected the kitniyot taboo long ago, calling it foolish and unnecessary. The Kitniyot Liberation Front—a tongue-in-cheek movement whose Facebook page is fronted by a photo of matzo smeared with hummus and describes itself as “dedicated to liberating all Jews who wish to be free of this questionable custom that causes needless divisions between families and friends”—has over 3,000 followers. Perelman later wrote that she plans to “put tahini on everything now with abandon.”

New Yorker Alan Divack began embracing beans and rice at his Seder in the 1990s after learning about Golkin’s original ruling. “I had this feeling of, ‘Ah, I’m free,’” he said. “I felt absolutely no guilt. My only concern was if our Seder guests might be offended.” As the self-defined “most traditional” person among his family and friends, he hasn’t had many objections to the rice pudding or slow-baked gigante beans with oregano and garlic he serves.

Although he’s been eating kitniyot on Passover for nearly two decades—Divack stocks up on Passover-certified kitniyot from a kosher supermarket in Queens—he did symbolically acknowledge the official ruling. “Last year, after the Conservative movement caught up with reality, I put a dish of dry beans on the Seder plate,” he said.

Others align more closely with Peltz, finding the change too jarring or otherwise unappealing. Lev Meirowitz-Nelson, a rabbi ordained at Hebrew College, said he is on board with the decision from a halachic (Jewish law) standpoint, but that his family will continue avoiding kitniyot. “Part of what makes Pesach so special is eating a different diet,” he said. “[My wife and I] both felt strongly that the particular foods we ate growing up, and the warm memories attached with them, are really important culturally to our Judaism.” (Full disclosure: I feel similarly, and despite growing up within the Conservative movement, don’t plan to bring kitniyot into my family’s kitchen at Passover anytime soon.)

Here is a case where the axiom “two Jews, three opinions” readily applies. The foods that end up on the table will vary widely from person to person and family to family. Mostly likely, the shift toward kitniyot will happen over a matter of generations, not years, as Conservative Jews who grow up within a kitniyot-permissive framework begin cleaning their own homes for Passover and hosting their own Seders. But there is no question, when it comes to kitniyot, this year is different from all others.


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