Shelomo Alfassa / Jewish Voice March 31, 2006
are two things on Pessah we are required to do. One
is to eat matsa, and the other is not to eat hamets
(leaven). Hamets includes wheat, rye, barley, oats,
and spelt, or any drinks made from their derivatives.
This commandment originates in the Torah, "You
shall safeguard the matsas
leaven may not be
found in your homes...You must not eat anything leavened."
(Bereshit 12:15-20). The Ashkenazi rabbis of Europe
wanting to make sure no one in their communities transgressed
this law, developed a gezeirah (protective
fence) for this commandment.
followed the guidance of the early Talmudic sages
that said Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted
it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to
the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great
Assembly (the rabbinical leaders). The men of the
Great Assembly said three things, be deliberate in
judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence
for the Torah.
fences were put in place to protect the people from
transgressing the laws-even accidentally. An example
of making a fence around something is easily demonstrated
by the parent who removes the knobs from their stove.
Even though a child may not know how to turn on the
burners, by removing the knobs, there is no chance
the child can be burned.
the days of Pessah, we do not eat any hamets, food
that contains grains and has been subjected to even
the slightest amount of moisture for a period of time
prior to baking. No ordinary flour is permitted to
be used. Generally speaking, most will only bake only
with matsa meal or potato starch.
can be eaten, including peas, beans and corn, all
which are not classified as hamets but kitniyot.
Rice is also in this category of acceptable fare.
So where does the idea that rice and other kitniyot
should not be eaten stem from? The origin for this
protective fence goes back several hundred years when
people were occasionally confusing products that were
not banned for Pessah (such as corn and rice) with
products that were banned for Pessah (such as wheat
and barley). At the time, sacks that held hamets,
were said to also be used for kitniyot.
Moshe of Kouchi, a 13th century French rabbi ruled
kitniyot can appear like hamets products. For
example, it may be hard to distinguish between rice
flour (kitniyot) and wheat flour (hamets). Wanting
to protect their community from transgressing the
prohibition of using hamets on Pessah, the rabbinate
instituted a ban of anything which could remotely
be confused with hamets. By outlawing these food products,
this protective fence assured no one within their
community would go against the Torah, even by accident.
important to reiterate that kitniyot such as rice,
corn and legumes are not hamets, and they cannot "become"
hamets. Maimonides writes that there is no hamets
in kitniyot and even if rice was ground into flour,
and it was to rise like leavened dough, it is permissible
to eat it, as it is not hamets.
many new "kasher for Pessah" products are
coming into the United States from Israel, but to
the majority of American Jews (who are Ashkenazi),
these products are not acceptable. It's important
to note that products labeled "kasher for Pessah"
are indeed kasher, but because of the minhag (custom)
of the Ashkenazim, these products are not utilized.
One example is halvah sold in the kasher section of
the supermarket. It states "kasher for Pessah,"
however it contains corn syrup and therefore is not
accepted under Ashkenazi custom. Certain other foods
such as canned stuffed grape leaves (yaprak or dolma)
are certified kasher for Pessah, nevertheless, these
delicacies are stuffed with rice, and so are excluded
by Ashkenazi families.
it is commonly known that Sephardim eat rice during
the holiday, not all do. It varies by country of origin,
community, and family tradition. The Sephardim who
do eat it, meticulously check the rice three times
(usually spread out on a table) to assure that no
other grains are among the rice.
Cola uses corn syrup in their products throughout
the year which is acceptable to all Jews. However,
during Pessah the Ashkenazi community will not drink
it because the corn syrup used as sweetener is kitniyot.
In order to appeal to overall Jewish community, in
most bottling plants, Coke replaces corn syrup with
real sugar for the week prior to Pessah. The bottles
made with sugar can be recognized by their unique
yellow colored caps. The label will read "corn
syrup" but the plant (which is under orthodox
rabbinical supervision) adds only sugar to sweeten
the drink for the eight days. The label isn't changed,
because it is said to be too costly to replace it
for such a short period of time.
products which contain corn syrup such as ketchup,
margarine, cream cheese, and even some canned tuna
are not eaten by the Ashkenazi, while in the Sephardi
community they are acceptable fare. Of course any
kitniyot products which you may want to prepare on
Pessah should have proper rabbinical supervision.
Jews, we have many different customs, but first and
foremost we are Jews, united by the Torah. Our customs
may be different, but we celebrate Pessah for the
same exact reason-the liberation from slavery. Even
so, Pessah may be the holiday of Jewish independence
from Egypt, but not from persecution in the world.
Hopefully, this year Pessah will serve to remind us
of our victories over our enemies in the past, and
our victories to come in the future.