ROCKVILLE, Md. — On Passover, Lynne Sandler will be passing on the beans and rice.
Sandler, a member of Conservative Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, said she won’t take advantage of her movement’s ruling in November that permits eating a category of food called kitniyot that includes rice, beans and other legumes.
These foods have always been eaten by Sephardi Jews on Passover, but have banned by Ashkenazi rabbis since the 1200s.
“We won’t be doing anything different this year,” Sandler said. “We’ve lived our lives without it.”
But others are relieved by the lifting of the kitniyot ban by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. By dispensing with a custom whose roots in Jewish law are relatively recent as such things go, they argue, the ruling responds to modern concerns over nutrition, finances and even Jewish unity.
All three factors are weighed in the teshuvah, or ruling, which passed in December with 19 rabbis in favor, one opposed and two abstaining.
With many Jews complaining about the high cost of eating during Passover, and the lack of healthy packaged foods, the committee’s ruling referred to the “extremely inflated cost of products under Pesach supervision.”
It added: “Were kitniyot to be permitted, beans and rice could be served with vegetables and dairy to largely supplant the demand for other packaged products and more expensive sources of protein for those who chose to do so, an option that is significantly limited today.”
Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Maryland, a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, said the ruling is in line with long-standing Jewish law about protecting the consumer.
“The cost of everything is greater on Passover,” she said. “The ruling helps relieve that burden.”
There are also health issues, Grossman said.
“Passover foods are high in fat and cholesterol,” she said. “And meat is expensive and environmentally questionable [when produced] in bulk.” A less restrictive diet would help those with heart disease, Crohn’s disease or colitis, she added.
The eight-page ruling also discussed unity among the Jewish people.
“In Israel, we’re seeing a coming together of Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions,” Grossman said. “Pesachdik in Israel includes kitniyot.”
The Conservative movement in Israel has permitted eating kitniyot since 1989. Even some Ashkenazi Orthodox rabbis in Israel have been lenient with followers.
The Torah mentions five types of grain that can become leavened, or chametz, if they remain in water for more than 18 minutes: wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt. These grains are banned on Passover, except as matzah.
But why are kitniyot — rice, millet, beans, lentils and the like — banned, since they cannot become chametz?
A number of reasons arose in Ashkenazi communities in the 1200s. One is that rice and legumes are sometimes mixed with wheat; to avoid an accidental mixture, kitniyot was banned altogether.
“Another is if we allow kitniyot porridge, we will eat grain porridge because both are cooked in a pot,” Rabbi David Golinkin, a Conservative authority in Israel,wrote in a 2013 teshuvah. And if rice or bean flour can be baked into bread, someone might mistakenly think that it is all right to eat bread on Passover made from wheat or rye flour.
“None of these reasons appear cogent, however, in the present age when we purchase our flours, rice and beans in discrete packages, well-marked as to their content, under governmental supervision,” according to the Conservative ruling. “In such a marketplace 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.”
Even before the ruling, the Conservative movement already permitted eating kitniyot for vegetarians and vegans, said Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
“But you have to consult a rabbi to make sure you’re eating kitniyot and not chametz,” he said. “Our daughter is a vegetarian, so we’re familiar with her eating kitniyot and using our Pesach utensils.”
Eating kitniyot on dishes and utensils set aside for Passover does not make the utensils — or the house — not kosher for Passover, Arian said.
In its ruling, the committee also pointed to “our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions [and] more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us.”
But some worry the ruling may make things look a lot less restrictive than they actually are.
Although U.S.-based Sephardic groups issue lists of kosher-for-Passover rice and frozen legumes, “my concern is that people will take this as permission to buy anything off the shelf, look at the ingredients, say that it looks OK and eat it,” Arian said. “But practically no processed kitniyot products are certified.”
A standard bag of rice, for example, needs to be checked for chametz before the holiday begins.
“I can’t imagine us actually doing that,” Arian said.
Sandler said that when she lived in Israel, she used to spread rice on a piece of paper to remove stones.
“I don’t know if I could even find chametz in it. It’s not worth the hassle,” Sandler said. “We can live without it for a week.”
Sharon Samber, a member of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., welcomed the loosening of the strict kitniyot rules.
“It makes life easier, and you need as much of that as you can on Passover,” she said.
The focus on the minutiae of the holiday often comes at the expense of Passover’s larger meaning, Samber said.
“I hope this helps us focus on the more meaningful parts of Passover — discussing what it means to be free and who isn’t free today,” she said.
For others, heeding the minutiae actually enhances the holiday.
“I will probably stick to tradition,” said Marcie Lerner, a member of Kehilat Shalom.
“Just like there are traditional Torah-mandated foods for Passover, there are familial and traditional foods that help keep heritage and memories alive. Also, old habits die hard.”
For now, memory may be the biggest barrier to bringing kitniyot back to the table.
“Look, if I don’t have those jelly fruit slices, it’s not Pesach,” Arian said. “The rest of the year they’re disgusting. So I can’t imagine sitting down with corn on the cob, but someone else might.”
David Holzel is the managing editor of the Washington Jewish Week.