Some rabbis just lifted an 800-year-old dietary rule, and the change may rock your Passover world

This isn’t a precise metaphor, but something is happening with Jews and Passover that’s a little like if Weight Watchers’ most devout, longtime members suddenly learned that ice cream frappes are totally fine. This is a much bigger deal, though.

Friday night begins the eight-day holiday, during which the Torah forbids Jews to eat foods considered “chametz” – leavened products that can rise to become like bread. This is meant to remind Jews of the biblical story of their hurried exodus from slavery in Egypt, when they had no time for bread to rise. Chametz can also be seen as a metaphor for arrogance and other attributes – or types of enslavement – from which Jews are told to free themselves.

It’s hardly slavery by an evil Pharaoh, but the ban on foods made with wheat, barley, oats and other grains means no to numerous items including bread, cereal, pasta and beer. Ashkenazi Jews – the ethnic group to which the vast majority of Jews belong – centuries ago began banning a whole additional category of foods called kitniyot, which includes corn, millet, beans, peas, legumes and seeds such as rice. Eating for many Jews on Passover becomes super-boring. Your options – unless you are creative – can narrow to day after day of hard-boiled eggs, matzah and tuna fish salad.

But this year, rabbis with the Conservative movement – a kind of middle road denomination – announced that, after 800 years, kitniyot are actually alright. For millions of people preparing for what can be a pretty challenging nine days of eating, the Conservative ruling has been major news in the last week as Jewish media have begun reporting it.

In Israel, where there are many Sephardic Jews and the kitniyot ban was ditched by many long ago, some papers ran headlines about excited Americans who can eat sushi and PB&J on Passover. Since oils from kitniyot are banned, and peanuts can be made into oil, it’s been common not to eat peanut butter on Passover.

In the ruling, which was issued quietly and with little coverage in November, Conservative rabbis noted that the tradition of not eating kitniyot never spread to Sephardic Jews – the ones who descended from the Spain-Portugal area. And as the Jewish world in Israel and the United States becomes more mixed, it doesn’t make sense for different Jews to keep Passover differently, the rabbis said. They also noted that many Jews today eat vegan and gluten-free and that this change will make it easier and less expensive for them to eat during Passover. They also noted that the motivation of centuries ago – that since some kitniyot could be used to make flour, Jews might get them confused – doesn’t really make sense today since food is clearly marked when it is stored and sold.

Yet a centuries-old tradition isn’t shrugged off without complications or sentiment. Even with rabbinical permission, those who follow the Conservative movement are facing the ruling with mixed emotions.

Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward – a major U.S. Jewish news site – a few days ago wrote an essay, “Why am I irrationally worried about kitniyot?” Eisner noted that she isn’t a strictly law-following Jew and wasn’t even raised in a kosher home.

Yet, she wrote, “this drive to connect — to ancestors, to other Jews — is a powerful motive, at Passover especially. But the kitniyot conundrum exposes its inconsistencies. Connect with whom? Given the massive disruption of European Jewry in the 20th century, some of us have no idea of our forebears’ practices and can only imagine what was served at their Seders, if there were Seders at all. … As distinctive practices in Judaism diminish, I wonder what will be left behind or forever lost in the homogenizing process. … And on a gut level, how will it feel? The burden of Passover is also its beauty — we eat differently that week, more simply (at least after the Seders), more attuned to absence and sacrifice. By the sixth day, matzo does, indeed, taste like the bread of affliction, but that’s precisely the point. Will it still feel as meaningful if it’s slathered with peanut butter?”

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