As with any decree involving Jewish law, the previous sentence sounds like it’s hedging. And it is. Ultimately, every Jewish person observes Passover in a way that is meaningful to them and the community with which they’re affiliated. The patterns of observance have changed over time and will continue to do so. Chametz (products that can become leavened, which include wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt) is regarded as verboten by Jewish law during Passover. But a variety of New World products called kitniyot are another story altogether.
Since the Medieval Period (13th century-ish CE), some rabbis cast a skeptical eye at kitniyot, which are legumes, rice, corn, millet and, depending on whom you ask, certain spices and seeds as well. The rabbis advised Eastern European Jews to avoid kitniyot during Passover out of an abundance of caution. In a (pea)nutshell, the rabbis’ argument goes like this: While kitniyot aren’t chametz, some of these items could be confused with ground chametz and often grow adjacent to those forbidden grains, so let’s exclude kitniyot during Passover “just in case.”
[Aside: This abundance of caution doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that the (male) rabbis put a host of new dietary restrictions on an already restrictive holiday at a time when women were likely the parties responsible for putting kosher meals on the table.]
This 700-ish-year-old largely Ashkenazi tradition of avoiding kitniyot is one that has been called into question by modern Jewish movements. Orthodox Union practice is to “prohibit these items on Passover,” though OU Kosher introduced in 2013 an OU-Kitniyot label to aid Sephardic Jews and others who do consume kitniyot.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis Responsa Committee of the Reform Jewish Movement offered a straightforward answer on kitniyot in 1996: “As a matter of Reform communal practice, our ‘standards of Pesach kashrut’ allow the observant Reform Jew to eat rice and legumes during the Festival.” In sum: Observe if it’s meaningful to you, but you’re not any less of an observant Reform Jew if you eat kitniyot at Passover.
The Reconstructionist movement’s A Guide to Jewish Practice offers a description of kitniyot and why some Jews follow the minhag (custom), but doesn’t offer a prescription for observance. Rabbi Vivie Mayer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College added, “Reconstructionist Judaism writ large doesn’t offer policies; rather, it offers teachings and information so that every person or each community can make their own decisions.”
The Guide notes, for instance, that basic nutritional requirements of vegans may not be met if they abstain from kitniyot, and that should be taken into consideration.
A 2018 Gallup poll found that three percent of American adults—roughly seven million people—are vegan and more ideological liberals than conservatives identify as vegan. There are no hard numbers regarding how many of those individuals are Jewish, though one could offer conjecture that veganism is more prevalent in American Jewish culture as it vegan items are “safe” for those who observe kashrut. To wit, the world’s largest percentage of vegans per capita (five percent) is in Israel, amounting to roughly 400,000 people.
Rounding out this overview of American Jewish custom, the Conservative movement’s 2015 decree from its halachic authority, the Rabbinical Assembly, reversed centuries of minhag and “legalized” kitniyot, opening up a literal New World of grain and protein options to its Ashkenazim.
What our modern advances in food processing giveth, some of them come with a catch. Highly processed kosher-for-Passover boxed goods such as matzah meal and cake meal simplify and minimize our time spent toiling on cooking for Passover. Yet better nutrition is one of the reasons the Rabbinical Assembly decided to allow kitniyot in its 2015 decision. At the market, remember to read the nutrition and ingredients information on the box to purchase items that meet your family’s needs in terms of nutrition, cost and time.
My recipe for black bean fudgies is a more nutritious spin on kosher-for-Passover brownies. The fudgies can be made year round with traditional ingredients, too.
What makes this indulgent Passover treat a bit more nutritious is the addition of protein- and fiber-rich beans, using a reasonable amount of sugar and employing neutral-tasting canola oil, which is proven to reduce the risk of heart disease. With the added fiber from the beans, there’s extra incentive to limit portions, though gastrointestinal discomfort can vary from person to person.