By Nathan Jeffay, The Forward
Tags: israel news
In Tel Aviv, shortly before Passover, David Cohen was mulling over his holi=
day menu. "I'm thinking of making sushi," he said.
His plan reflects more than just growing Israeli enthusiasm for Japanese fo=
od; it reflects a new polarization on one of the most controversial of Pass=
over-related issues - kitniyot.
Cohen, a beer brewer in his 40s, is an Ashkenazic Orthodox Jew, yet he plan=
s to eat a food shunned on Passover by most observant Ashkenazim. Rice - a =
key ingredient in sushi - is not in the biblically banned category of hamet=
z, or leavened cereal grain. Religiously, if not taxonomically, it falls wi=
thin the family of legumes that in Hebrew is known as kitniyot.
Sephardic Jews eat them on Passover, but Ashkenazic rabbis banned them cent=
uries ago because they resemble leavened food when they swell up.
More and more foods have been classified as kitniyot in recent years, as As=
hkenazi rabbinic positions have hardened across a wide expanse of Halacha, =
or traditional religious law. Of late, however, something of a rebellion ha=
s erupted among pockets of Modern Orthodox Jews who have decided to eat kit=
"Why should we uphold a meaningless restriction when the Torah permits us t=
o eat kitniyot?" Rabbi David Bar-Hayim of Jerusalem asked rhetorically in a=
n interview with the Forward. Bar-Hayim made history two years ago by forma=
lly lifting the ban on kitniyot in the Holy Land. His authority is invoked =
among the growing ranks of new kitniyot-eaters like Cohen.
According to some experts on changes in religious law, we are witnessing th=
e beginning of the end for the ban on kitniyot in Israel. "In another gener=
ation, people in Israel won't even know what you are talking about," said R=
abbi Donniel Hartman, co-director of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Ins=
For many observant Ashkenazim here, the kitniyot prohibition is a long-stan=
ding pet peeve. "This was a much easier process before I moved to Israel," =
said Michael Davis, a recent British immigrant interviewed while shopping f=
or Passover in a Tel Aviv supermarket.
For most of the year, Israel is the capital of kosher, offering the word?s =
easiest consumer experience for observant Jews. Come Passover, however, man=
y of those same consumers find shopping interminably complex.
Beginning a few days before Passover, Israeli shops overflow with items cer=
tified "kosher for Passover," like those in Diaspora Jewish neighborhoods. =
But in Israel, traditional Ashkenazim must read the fine print on every ite=
m. A growing number of products are labeled ?Suitable for kitniyot-eaters o=
In part, the confusion is caused by manufacturers using kitniyot in ever-mo=
re adventurous Passover products. The other cause is the constantly swellin=
g list of items banned by Orthodox rabbis as kitniyot.
"The attitude in the last few decades has changed and become stricter to th=
e point of absurdity," said kitniyot expert Daniel Sperber, a professor of =
Talmud at Bar Ilan University. Recent additions to the kitniyot list, he sa=
id, include cottonseed oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil and even hemp.
Opponents of the growing list point out that many products now deemed kitni=
yot, like sweet corn and soybeans, were unknown to the medieval sages whom =
today's rabbis claim to follow, and therefore cannot be covered by their pr=
Thanks to the growing stringency, a traditional Ashkenazi in the store wher=
e Davis was shopping would have to avoid such un-legumelike products as che=
wing gum and chocolate spread, along with most cooking sauces.
Bar-Hayim argues that maintaining practices unique to Ashkenazic Jews in Is=
rael is undesirable. By definition, he said, the Jewish state should find J=
ews more "united in their religious practice," not "living here as if they =
are in the old country."
For backing he cited the Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of rabbinic=
law, which states that a Jew moving to a new area should adopt the customs=
of the new community rather than cling to the old ones. And since the kitn=
iyot restriction is European and was never widely observed in the Middle Ea=
st, he reasons, it holds no weight in Israel.
His ruling has provoked widespread rabbinic fury. "People have been keeping=
this tradition for over 600 years," former Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yo=
sef said in a lecture last month. "Those who kept it were great people. Wha=
t, we should tell them to give up their traditions?"
To Bar-Hayim, the critics' approach is irrationally attached to the past an=
d is "not halachic," possibly even "anti-halachic." "Just as it is forbidde=
n to allow what is prohibited, it is forbidden to prohibit what is allowed,=
" he said.
The debate runs deep, even dividing some families. Eliyahu Skozylas, a Jeru=
salem software engineer, will be eating kitiyot this Passover for the third=
consecutive year, but his wife refuses. It is, he admits, a "major source =
of tension in our home."
Bar-Hayim's ruling and his reasoning closely echo a 20-year-old halachic ru=
ling by the Israeli Conservative movement. David Golinkin, head of the Cons=
ervative rabbinical college the Schechter Institute, wrote in 1989 that all=
Israelis can eat kitniyot "without fear of transgressing any prohibition."
Some scholars predict that a combination of rabbinic rulings and demographi=
cs will eventually make the kitniyot ban a thing of the past in Israel. "Th=
e classic characteristics of halachic change" are already discernible on th=
e issue, Hartman said. For example, large numbers of Ashkenazim - himself i=
ncluded - draw a fine distinction by eating kitniyot "derivatives" but not =
The "disintegration of the divide between Ashkenazi and Sephardi" will play=
a significant part, Hartman said. Already there is "not a single family in=
the country without a Sephardi member," and Sephardim are more influential=
than ever in national culture. He stressed that this development will be a=
result of Ashkenazic-Sephardic mixing in Israel and will not affect practi=
ce in the Diaspora.
Other experts predict that the kitniyot tradition will endure, preserved by=
a combination of religious traditionalism and multiculturalism. "There's a=
reassertion of ethnic pride, with people feeling it's okay to do things di=
fferently to others and to celebrate diversity," said Bar-Ilan University J=
ewish studies professor Adam Ferziger