I distinctly remember standing in the Hillel dining hall during my freshman year of college, and a friend of Persian background explaining to me that she could eat rice and beans during Passover because she had Sephardic heritage. I was pretty sure my ancestors were from Eastern Europe, but I found myself wondering if I should embark on a genealogy project to determine whether I might have had at least one Sephardic relative in my lineage, giving me carte blanche to enjoy sushi (not just sashimi) and peanut butter (not with the sushi) during Passover.
Peanut butter? Why isn’t peanut butter kosher for Passover? Well, it turns out peanuts are not nuts, but rather legumes (fun cocktail party fact with which to amuse your friends!), so they are not kosher for Passover according to some Ashkenazi standards.
Oy! These rules are enough to make your head spin. We just want to know what’s kosher for Passover and what’s not, but it no longer seems simple. And that’s because it’s not. I even picked up a box of matzah at the grocery store this week that was clearly labeled “not kosher for Passover.” Why would anyone eat matzah not during Passover?! There are far more delicious foods to eat the other 51 weeks of the year!
During Passover, Jews are traditionally prohibited from eating foods that contain chametz. Chametz includes leavened bread, or anything else that isn’t matzah and is made with wheat, barley, oats, spelt or rye. Ashkenazic tradition has historically also prohibited kitniyot: rice, corn, soy, millet, beans, peas and pretty much any other legume, or anything deriving from those products, like corn syrup, tofu or soy oil. Similarly, seeds like mustard, sesame and fennel are also avoided during Passover.
Times are changing though. This November, the Conservative movement in the United States followed a 1989 decision of the Israeli Conservative movement and ruled that kitniyot are now considered kosher for Passover. The decision took into consideration the lack of healthy options for packaged kosher for Passover food, and its high cost, as well as a desire to unite American Jews with Israeli Jews. And it acknowledged that the reasons for the initial Passover ban of rice and legumes in the 1200s really lacked cogent reasons. Even if the reasons made sense hundreds of years ago—when different types of food were more likely to be mistaken for one another or inadvertently mixed—they don’t necessarily make sense in our modern world of well-labeled food.
So, rules are changing for Passover. But I take the same approach to Passover as I do with most Jewish traditions. My advice: Figure out what kind of Passover food experience is meaningful for you. Do Passover dietary restrictions resonate for you? If so, decide what it would mean for you to limit food options for a week, and consider what’s going to make you feel connected to Judaism and feel good about the food choices you’re making for your body and the impact of your eating on the world. Whatever you do and don’t eat, may the holiday be a meaningful one.