Jerusalem Institute Questions Post-Diaspora Kitniyot Abstinence

The religious court of a Jerusalem Talmudic research center has questioned the Ashkenazi practice of abstaining from legumes on Passover in Israel.

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Ezra HaLevi,

The religious court of a Jerusalem Talmudic research center has taken aim at the Ashkenazi practice of abstaining from legumes on Passover in Israel.

The Beit Din (religious court) of Machon Shilo, headed by Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, issued the ruling, which permits the consumption of Kitniyot (legumes) by all Jews in Israel during the Pesach holiday. Co-signing the ruling were Jerusalem Rabbis Yehoshua Buch and Chaim Wasserman.

The Beit Din explains in its ruling that the custom of refraining from consumption of Kitniyot on Pesach began due to purely logistical issues such as phenomenon of wheat grains being found in sacks of rice. The ruling and customs affect mostly Jews from Ashkenazi descent, as Sephardic Jewry never adopted the customs.

Rabbi Bar-Hayim heads Machon Shilo, a Talmudic research institute seeking to reestablish the religious customs and practices of the pre-exile Jewish communities in Israel in place of those adopted in Babylon and Europe.

"[Refraining from eating Kitniyot] was a localized custom in parts of Germany, which later moved eastwards to Poland and Russia with the waves of Jewish emigration," explains Rabbi Bar-Hayim. "The explanations offered for the custom are unconvincing. You don't find wheat in rice today. It was never accepted by Jews worldwide. Whatever the origin of the custom, Ashkenazi Jewish commentators have struggled to find good reasons for the ban. Some authorities, such as Rabbeinu Yeruham (Provence, 14 c.) called it a 'foolish custom'."

The Machon Shilo ruling goes to far as to insinuate that financial incentives contributed at certain times to the addition of other foods to the category of Kitniyot. “Over time, more and more items were arbitrarily added to the list,” Rabbi Bar Hayim writes. “Beans, peas, and more recently soya beans and even peanuts. Few Ashkenazi Jews today would eat peanuts or use peanut oil on Pesach, but as recently as 40 years ago peanuts were permitted by all Rabbinical authorities. Often there were economic interests at work behind the scenes, pushing for ever more stringent definitions of Kitniyot, in order to create a market for a particular product. Products that were previously kosher were banned. Very expensive oils such as walnut oil replaced other oils that were previously acceptable and the focus of the holiday shifted from avoiding Chametz to avoiding Kitniyot.”

Rabbi Bar-Hayim says he understands the importance of preserving customs, but that the Talmud itself explicitly instructs Jews how to relate to the customs passed down to them. "We learn from the Mishnah and the Talmud that customs are connected to a particular place. When one moves permanently to another locality, one is to adopt the local custom," Rabbi Bar-Hayim says. "The custom of abstaining from eating Kitniyot during Pesach has never been the prevailing practice among all Jews in the Land of Israel, and therefore is not binding upon Jews living in Israel. A person may choose to continue adhering to his custom, but no one has the right to enforce his custom on others."

Rabbi Bar-Hayim says that Kitniyot is just a symptom of the fractured nature of Judaism in Israel since the forced exile two millennia ago. He laments the status quo whereby Ashkenazi and Sephardi neighbors do not eat at one another’s home on the Pesach holiday, meant to be a time of unity for the Jewish people, who would ascend as a nation to Jerusalem in Temple times. “We hope that this ruling will serve as the beginning of a process that will unite the Jewish People."

Even more critical, says Rabbi Bar-Hayim, are the results of retaining the customs picked up during an exile during which many now-relevant mitzvoth (commandments) were superfluous. “When a Jew lives in accordance to the Judaism of Minsk or Dvinsk, there is no place in his worldview for bringing the Korban Pesach (the Pesach sacrifice of a lamb, as was done each year starting with the Exodus),” laments Rabbi Bar-Hayim. "Today, as always, we are commanded to bring a Korban Pesach, but most people are under the mistaken impression that we cannot since we are ritually impure from contact with the dead."

Citing the Mishna and the Rambam, which state that if a majority of the people is ritually unclean the Passover sacrifice is not postponed and is brought in a state of impurity, Rabbi Bar-Hayim says the only reason not to reinstate the Biblical commandment is the political climate preventing Jewish religious access to the Temple Mount. "We hope that this psak halacha (Jewish legal ruling) will cause a paradigm shift from 'small talk' about Kitniyot to confronting the big issues such as the Pesach sacrifice. I am aware that some people, even some religious Jews, are uncomfortable with the subject of animal sacrifice; this is something that we need to discuss and internalize. The Pesach sacrifice was one of the annual highlights of Jewish life in the Land of Israel during the First and Second Commonwealths. The Jewish People has come home; we need to start acting like it."

The full Machon Shilo ruling can be viewed (in Hebrew) by clicking here.

The Machon Shilo ruling remains a minority opinion. Arutz-7 contacted a few of Israel’s leading Religious Zionist rabbis to comment on the issue.

Rabbi Zalman Melamed, Chief Rabbi of Beit El, said that Ashkenazi Jews are forbidden from consuming Kitniyot on Pesach. “We act in accordance with our tradition, which is that Ashkenazim are forbidden to eat Kitniyot on Pesach,” he said.

Asked whether that applied to more recent additions to the Kitniyot classification, such as peanuts. Rabbi Melamed said, “One whose family has the tradition that they eat peanuts can eat peanuts.”

Rabbi Melamed stressed that while it is a desirable aim for the nation to move toward unity in their Jewish observance, such a shift must be done by a decision of a larger plurality of Torah sages, and not by individuals.

Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem’s Old City, also said that it is forbidden for Ashkenazi Jews to eat Kitniyot. He took issue with the assertion that the minhag hamakom (local custom) in Israel is to eat Kitniyot. “The Land of Israel belongs to all of the Jewish people and not just Sepharadi Jews,” he said. “There are many customs and there is no minhag hamakom that prevails in Israel.”

Rabbi Nebenzahl conceded that an Ashkenazi Jew could conceivably take on Sephardi customs if he lives in a community that is wholly Sephardi.

Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, Rosh Yeshiva of the Birkat Moshe Hesder Yeshiva in Maaleh Adumim, disagreed with the assertion that there was no local custom – in theory. “There was in fact a minhag hamakom in the Land of Israel. But when other communities arrived, they did not respect it and chose to continue their own customs…I presume the local custom was to eat Kitniyot.”

But Rabbi Rabinovitch says he does not understand why anybody should be bothered by the customs of others. “Who does it hurt that Ashkanazim today refrain from Kitniyot? They can in fact eat at their Sephardi neighbors and just not eat from the Kitniyot foods.”

“There are many congregations today,” he added. “There is no longer a single community without two rabbis…and just as you wouldn’t want to make everyone dress the same way, we should not force everyone to give up their customs…many of which offer a connection to their previous generations.”

Rabbi Rabinovitch concluded that the matter of consumption of Kitniyot is a personal matter of observance and should be discussed individually with one’s rabbi.