Passover preperation - Reuters - April 13, 2011
Ultra-Orthodox prepare matza ahead of Passover in Bnei Brak on April 13, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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Emil Salman
Rabbi Leshem in his study this week in Efrat. “Certain things people think are prohibited are really permitted,” he said. Photo by Emil Salman

Trying to ease the life of Ashkenazi Jews who observe the dietary laws of the upcoming Passover holiday, an American-born Orthodox rabbi recently issued a halakhic ruling expanding the menu of permitted food products during the weeklong holiday.

According to Ashkenazi custom, the consumption of legumes and other non-wheat grains, known as kitniyot, during Passover is forbidden because of a resemblance to hametz, leavened grain, which is strictly prohibited on the holiday. Since most Israeli Jews who observe the holiday's dietary laws are of Sephardic descent, and thus do not have this custom, many kosher for Passover products in the country contain kitniyot, such as rice, corn and beans. In recent years, a growing number of Orthodox Jews - especially Western immigrants to Israel - have started rebelling against the kitniyot ban, arguing they are adapting to the Israel's mainstream practice because the ban is a custom and not law.

A few week's ago, Rabbi Zvi Leshem, of Efrat, issued a ruling that it is permissible to consume products and dishes containing kitniyot, as long as they do not constitute the main ingredient and are not directly recognizable. His decision will help those who do not want to entirely abandon the tradition of avoiding kitniyot but have difficulties finding certain items - such as oil, mayonnaise or chocolate spreads - that do not contain kitniyot in their ingredients.

"Some of those products that are labeled 'for those who eat kitniyot only' are permissible according to all opinions, since the ratio of kitniyot ingredients is less than 50 percent and they are therefore annulled in the majority of non-kitniyot ingredients," writes Leshem, 54, who was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate and holds a PhD in Jewish philosophy from Bar-Ilan University. "Since only products are forbidden in which kitniyot constitute the main ingredient, many oils, cookies and dairy products containing kitniyot are completely permissible for Ashkenazim." In addition, he permitted quinoa, the grain-like crop which is "a very new food" unknown to the sages who enacted the ban on kitniyot.

"It is a mitzvah [commandment] to publicize this decision, which is based upon the traditional Halachic methodology of the great authorities throughout the generations, and not upon looking for unnecessary stringencies," Leshem concludes.

"I tried to show that certain things that people think are prohibited are really permitted," Leshem, who lived in Cleveland and Indianapolis before he immigrated to Israel in 1979, told Anglo File this week. He said he used to avoid products labeled "for those who eat kitniyot only" for many years before looking into the matter.

"It is very misleading, certainly for Anglo olim [immigrants] who are not used to the whole issue. The obvious thing that most of them do is avoid anything that says kitniyot. But that's in many cases unnecessary."

But more and more Ashkenazim, especially Anglos, feel that in Israel it no longer makes sense to observe a custom followed by a minority.

Louis Gordon, for example, said he wondered about the kitniyot divide since he moved from Baltimore to Israel 21 years ago. "I couldn't understand how kitniyot is kosher for these and treif [not kosher] for those," he told Anglo File. "There are people for whom kitniyot is worse than hametz. It didn't make any sense."

To vent his frustration, Gordon, 44, recently created a Facebook group called Kitniyot Liberation Front. The site, which currently has over 600 members, many of them local Anglos, seeks to promote awareness of lenient rabbinic opinions regarding the use of legumes on Passover. His opinion is mainly based on the views of Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, the head of Jerusalem's Shilo Institute, who in 2007 issued a ruling allowing Ashkenazim in Israel to eat kitniyot.

"The issue of kitniyot turns the holiday of Pesach from one of abstaining from hametz into abstention from kitniyot. Ashkenazim won't eat with Sephardim - this is not what God put us on earth for, to divide the people," the Yad Bimyamin resident told Anglo File.

The opposition against kitniyot will soon reach the "breaking point," Gordon predicted. "A lot of people are pushing hard for this." Especially Anglo immigrants are ready to drop the kitniyot prohibition, which has to do with the fact that newcomers often feel they're abandoning their family traditions as soon as they arrive in Israel, he said.

“If you’re looking to leave the galut [Diaspora] mentality behind then you’re definitely going to leave kitniyot behind.”

David Schwartz, a former New Yorker living in Ra’anana, says he started eating kitniyot soon after he moved to Israel.

“When I grew up in the States kitniyot wasn’t an issue, it was just assumed that it was hametz,” he said. “I didn’t even know there was an issue until I came here and realized that half the country was eating humus and corn and the other half wasn’t.” In the last few years eating kitniyot has become “considerably more acceptable among my Orthodox friends,” added Schwartz, a member of the Conservative movement, whose Israeli branch permitted kitniyot two decades ago.

Leshem, too, said he noticed many Orthodox Israelis disavowing the kitniyot prohibition. “It bothers me even though I can understand where it’s coming from,” he told Anglo File. “I’m in favor of unity among the Jewish people. But it does not seem to me halakically legitimate to just abandon the custom.” His ruling allows Ashkenazim to eat in Sephardic homes, as long as they’re not eating actual recognizable kitniyot, or dishes containing mostly of kitniyot, he added.

Although Gordon, of the Kitniyot Liberation Front, argues for an end to the “foolish custom” of banning kitniyot, he hinted that his wife is not ready to introduce the controversial items to her kitchen. “We don’t serve kitniyot, but if I’m out or if I’m with Sephardim and they’re serving it, it’s not an issue at all,” he said.

“The real idea behind the Liberation Front is that we need to forget about the little things. Kitniyot are little things. We mustn’t panic about eating something we know is not hametz on Pesach,” Gordon said. “If this is the thing that consumes the attention of the Jewish people, we’re really in a bad situation. We have much bigger issues to worry about.”