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This week the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on the recent ruling of the Law Committee of the Rabbinic Assembly of Conservative Judaism that kitniyot—which include rice, corn and beans—are kosher for Passover. It has caused quite a stir in the Jewish world. The Torah itself specifically bans chametz on Pesach, which it defines as one of the 5 grains—wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt—that has come in contact with water for more than 18 minutes. Eating kitniyot would certainly make Pesach easier to digest—pardon the pun.

By now you know that I’m all for making Passover—and all of Jewish life—easier for Jews to observe. This custom of not eating kitniyot—food that can have properties of grain but are not grains—seems to have taken hold around the 11th to 13th centuries in Europe. Jewish authorities were concerned that kitniyot might in some way become confused with true chametz. Why? 1st, cooked porridge and other cooked dishes made from grain and kitniyot appear similar. 2nd, kitniyot are often grown in fields adjacent to those in which chametz is grown, and these grains tend to mix together. And 3rd, kitniyot are often ground into a type of flour that can easily be confused with chametz. For these 3 reasons, the rabbis suggested that by avoiding kitniyot people would be better able to avoid chametz.

The contention by the Conservative movement is that these reasons no longer apply today where creatively prepared foods that are kosher for Passover can look and taste like real chametz foods even without Kitniyot, and the way kitniyot is processed today leaves little room for the confusion of the last 2 reasons.

Many of you have asked me what I think. I would agree that if I lived in Israel one might make a good case for the eating of kitniyot because this custom is a minhag hamakom, a local custom for European Jewry—and by extension America—because of the conditions there. The communities in Israel never adopted the custom of not eating kitniyot. However, in Europe and America, how does one break with almost a thousand years of tradition? The truth is one can live a week without sushi. And that, in short is where I stand on the matter. Although kitniyot are not forbidden by the Torah, we should not break with such long lasting traditions.

Besides, Passover is easier to observe now than ever before. You can find most anything and everything kosher l’Pesach. There’s a recipe for Passover bagels. You can buy kosher l’Pesach pizza … which I guess is eaten on Pesach to commemorate the exodus of the Jews from Sicily.

But while the variety of Passover products is expanding, in the orthodox world, more and more rabbinic prohibitions have been made—making it harder and harder to properly observe Pesach. There are now charts that show you how to measure out how much matzah and maror to eat … according to the amount that some of the charts demand, if you eat as much horseradish as they suggest, believe me, you’ll never need a colonoscopy!

There are whole books that are renewed every year that tell you which medicine and cosmetics you can use, and which you can’t use. What you might not know is that if someone is dangerously ill, he can eat outright chametz right at the Seder table—that’s Jewish law! And if one is just ill, then most every medicine is okay if it’s in capsule form because it’s not considered “food fit for a dog” nor is it eaten in the “normal manner of eating,” both of which make it permissible. Yes, there are some authorities who are strict on this, but many others are not! Of course, if you can get something comparable without chametz, it’s even better! But I must tell you, as a great Halachik authority put it: “If you’re choices are medicine made by Pfizer or Rokeach … I think you have a better chance of surviving Pfizer’s quality control.”

Cough syrups—because they are made with alcohol and corn syrup—do create a problem, but not toothpaste. Toothpaste is only a problem if you intend to purposely swallow it. Why you would, I don’t know. There are newly published lists every year that tell us which deodorants and shampoos we can use. Let me tell you my bottom line—you can use them all! And you can use any soap, even one that might have some chametz in it because it’s not considered food—although I try to avoid that one.

I have seen “Kosher for Passover” rabbinic certification on everything from fabric softeners to paper towels and napkins, to room air fresheners and baby wipes … and it’s all ridiculous! My Rebbi, Rabbi Michel Katz, z”l, used to certify coffee as kosher l’Pesach. He thought it was rather silly because the unflavored coffee never had any opportunity to come in contact with chametz throughout the process of production to packaging. I have seen Pesach certification for aluminum foil. My Rebbe described the process of how aluminum foil is made. He pointed out that the raw product is pushed through flaming hot rollers. He told us the rollers are so hot that if you put a pig through them it would come out kosher l’Pesach

Don’t get me wrong … it’s right and proper to be stricter with our Pesach food than during the year—and that’s why most observant Jews don’t eat kitniyot. Jewish law says the slightest, slightest piece of chametz ruins everything. That’s why some people won’t eat in anyone else’s house but their own on Pesach. Because there are so many different customs on how to prepare foods on Pesach, they’re uncomfortable eating food prepared by others. I admire these people, I really do! They’re being exacting—but only on themselves. They’re not looking down on others, trying to impose their way.

In the Shulchan Aruch, The Code of Jewish Law, we are told: Chayev adam l’hiyot sameyach v’tov leyv b’moeyd (A man is obligated to be happy and feel good on the festival). The Mishneh Berura in his commentary adds the words, V’hu mitzvat asey min haTorahgam b’nashim, (This is a positive commandment from the Torah, even for women). Talk about equality! Even women are obligated to be happy and to enjoy Passover. Passover was never meant to be a drudgery—a holiday to be dreaded. But that’s what it has become for too many.

The late Harav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi wrote: The pressure of pre-Pesach cleaning has reached unnecessary and overwhelming levels. The housewife often becomes totally nervous, unable to enjoy the simcah of Yomtov and unable to perform the mitzvot of the Seder night. We can understand the person dreading Tisha B’av, but Pesach is to be looked forward to and anticipated with joy. And this rabbi goes on to list some of the things women are doing that are unnecessary, such as cleaning out clothes closets, dressers and chests and even basements where there is little, if any, possibility that chametz was used there during the year. Let me remind you, dust is not chametz!

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who is the Rosh Yeshiva of Ateret Kohanim and the rabbi of Beit El in Israel, goes even further when he writes in his book, Moadim Lesimcha: It shouldn’t take more than a day to clean the entire house, including the kitchen. Anything more than that is a stringency. If we take on an extra workload which we are not capable of dealing with, we deplete our energy and take out our exhaustion on our families.

Let me teach you 4 Yiddish words that formed part of the philosophy of one of the greatest 20th century ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, who when asked about how stringent one should be in Jewish practice would reply: Men darf zein normahl. “One has to be normal.” What does it mean to be “normal?”

Someone had this experience recently, which she reported on Facebook: I sat next to a Hasidic man on a flight. An earlier flight was delayed so a lot of people switched to our flight at the last minute including a woman who was separated from her small child. So she timidly asked the Hasidic man to switch seats, saying it may be against your religious beliefs to sit next to a woman. The man responded, “It’s against my religion to keep you apart from your child on a flight. Sitting next to a woman is fine!” He then proceeded to help her put her huge bag in the overhead compartment. 

My friends, Pesach is coming. Let’s be careful to keep our sacred traditions like kitniyot; but let’s be “normal.” Let’s do it the right way. Men, if you’re having a Seder at home with more than a few people, hire someone to help your wife serve and clean up so your wife will enjoy the Seder as well. Let your Seder be anticipated with joy. If we do so we will see the fulfillment of our holiday prayers: V’hasi-eynu Hashem Elokeynu et birkat mo-adecha l’chayim u’lshalom l’simcha u’l’sason, (May Gd will bestow upon us the blessing of His appointed festivals for life and peace, gladness and rejoicing). Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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