Sunday, March 26, 2006

YCT Shiur on Kitniot: If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck . . .

This is where I went last Wednesday night:

YCT Rabbinical School's Pre-Pesach Shiur
Wednesday, March 22, 2006 at 7:45 p.m.
Given by: Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh HaYeshiva
Topic: The Kitniyot Controversy in History and Halakha
YCT Beit Midrash
606 West 115th Street
New York, NY 10025
Telephone: 212.666.0036

Hey, don’t look at me if you missed it—I already announced it in this March 10 post of mine.

Okay, here’s one of those rare occasions on which I think I have a grasp of a rabbinical interpretation. It’s called “siyag la-torah,” which means, roughly, “a fence around the law,” I think. It’s a precautionary measure added to ensure that one doesn’t violate a halachah (Jewish religious law) by accident. The siyag that comes most readily to my mind is “the 18 minutes.” One is not permitted to kindle a fire on the Sabbath, so one lights any fire that one needs before Shabbat, which, technically, begins at sundown. Thus, one lights candles (and, these days, turns on any electric lights that one needs left on during Shabbat) before Shabbat. But, in order to ensure that one doesn’t accidentally kindle a fire on Shabbat, one kindles all necessary fires/turns on all necessary lights no later than 18 minutes before sundown.

Ashkenazi Jews (meaning almost all European Jews not descended from those expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492, who are known as Sefardi Jews) observe a special prohibition not to eat such foods as rice and legumes, known as kitniot, during Passover. I’d always assumed that that prohibition was a siyag against accidentally confusing the flour from such carbohydrates with the flours that must be under strict rabbinical supervision for Pesach to ensure that they do not become leavened. (Strictly speaking, the grains in need of such supervision are wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt, to the best of my knowledge.) Not so, said Rabbi Lerner, if I understood him correctly. Apparently, the prohibition was established for the purpose of not standing on a technicality. True, kitniot are not chametz, foods of the five grains specified that have become leavened. But the flour made from them looks like chametz flour, and they ferment like chametz. Therefore, the Ashkenazi rabbinic logic goes, we should treat them, to a certain extent, as if they were chametz, and not eat them during Pesach.

As Rabbi Linzer pointed out, the kitniot prohibition creates a number of problems.

1. For openers, in the days before the European discovery of that great Peruvian carb called the potato, people actually went hungry during Pesach because there was very little other than matzah and meat that was available that was kosher for Passover, and the less fortunate simply couldn’t afford that much of either.

2. Second, since the prohibition against kitniot, particularly in the pre-potato days, forced Ashkenazim to eat a lot more matzah, as it was practically the only form of carbohydrate that wasn’t on the “forbidden” list, the chance that they might accidentally eat a grain product that had become chametz was greater. Though the introduction of the potato has alleviated that problem considerably, there’s still some possibility that, because Askkenazim eat more grain products during Pesach, we could end up accidentally transgressing a biblical commandment (halachah min d’oraita?)—a major no-no—in order to observe a chumra (added rabbinic stringency). The chumrah, it could be argued, makes Ashkenazim more, not less, likely to violate the law against eating chametz during Pesach.

3. Rav Kook, first Chief Rabbi of (then-pre-statehood) Israel, argued that the more strict the rabbinate was in enforcing the chumra against kitniot, and chumrot (stringencies) in general, the more likely it was that the rabbinate would lose the trust of the community.

Here’s fellow blogger Dilbert on that very subject (copied from his March 7, 2006 e-mail to me regarding his post on kitniot and other disagreements concerning minhag (custom):

"When faced with something new, like the copepods in the water, hadash, yashon, wigs from India, etc., many people who identify as MO [Modern Orthdox] will react with "that can't be important if no one thought it was important up to now," or "I never learned about it so it can't be important," or "its just another new chumra from the right wing". Truth be told, frequently it is my first response as well. And, freqeuntly it does turn out to be just another chumra (opening soda cans on Shabbat is forbidden because one is making a cup). The instinct to disregard the new question goes back to mimetic Judaism, if it was good enough for may parents, if 80 years of very orthodox rabbis didn't care about the water.... But I think that a new concern deserves at least a little thought, make sure it isn't something important, and then dismiss it with a snort and a wave of the hand.”

How much weight do we give to “the letter of the law,” and how much to later chumrot (stringencies) or other minhagim (customs)? When does rabbinic interpretation take precedence over the traditions that we learned in our parents’ homes, and when does it behoove us to stand up for our right to cherish mussar avicha (the ethics teachings of your father) and torat imecha (the Torah as taught to you by your mother)?

How much should health and/or wealth count in observing a chumrah such as kitniot? Should the rabbis have insisted that even the poor stay away from kitniot, even though that violated both Judaism’s insistence on the requirement to care for one’s health and the tradition that the chagim (holidays) should be joyful? Should there be some leeway for vegetarians and for those who can’t eat wheat, rye, oats, barley, and/or spelt for medical reasons (celiac, gluten intolerance, etc.)? What about us lactose-intolerant people who depend on tofu products (soybeans are considered kitniot)? What about Ashkenazim in Israel, a country in which such an overwhelming majority of the population does not accept the prohibition against kitniot that it’s difficult to get kosher for Pesach products that don’t contain kitniot?

Are we Ashkenazim just a bunch of fanatics?

Sigh. ‘Scuse me while I go nosh some dairy-free dessert, while I still have a chance—tofu “ice cream” with peanut butter mixed in, anyone?


Blogger Drew Kaplan said...

Are Rabbi Lerner and Rabbi Linzer the same person?

Sun Mar 26, 11:00:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Oops. Sorry. Will correct.

Sun Mar 26, 11:03:00 PM 2006  
Blogger sherijberi said... eat the kitniot or not? What iS the answer?

Thu Apr 06, 12:39:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Better you should ask Drew--*he's* the rabbinical student!

Standard anwer: If you're Sefardi, yes; if you're Ashkenazi, no (sigh). And/or consult your local rabbi.

Some Ashkenazim "give it up" when they make aliyah because, since the vast majority of the Israeli population is Sefardi or B'nei Edot haMizrach and doesn't observe the minhag forbidding kitniot during Pesach, it's quite difficult to find kosher for Passover food that *doesn't* contain kitniot in Israel. My parents both being in poor health now, their rabbi (in Jerusalem) advised them to "switch" in the interest of not making their lives any more difficult than halachically necessary.

Also, Ashkenazi vegetarians have a tough time with this minhag. Celiacs (people who can't eat gluten, contained in wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt--all grains from which matzah can be made) have a difficult time giving up rice for 8 1/2 days. But many of both groups manage, anyway.

I'm just reporting the facts, ma'am. Not bein' a rabbi, I'm not givin' a t'shuva. That's an answer to a question concerning halachah/Jewish law, and what do *I* know?

Fri Apr 07, 08:44:00 AM 2006  

Post a Comment

<< Home

<< List
Jewish Bloggers
Join >>