Is it Kosher for Passover?

Posted on April 4, 2019

“And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for in this same day have I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; therefore shall you observe this day in your generations by an ordinance forever. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty first day of the month at evening.  Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses…  You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall you eat unleavened bread.”  Exodus 12:17-20

Passover is one the most widely observed Jewish holidays.  Sitting with family and friends enjoying the seder, hearing the four questions, eating matza ball soup, and looking for the afikoman, captivates children as well as adults.  This year, the first night seder is on Friday night, April 19.  On Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m., April 20, we will have a festival Passover Shabbat service.  And of course, on Saturday night, at 6:00 p.m. will be our wonderful congregational Passover seder.  Don’t forget to RSVP for this!  Passover concludes on Friday night, April 26 or if you are observing by Conservative/Orthodox standards, it concludes on the following Saturday night.

Within our own community, people keep Passover in differing ways.  Some only eat matzah at the seder while others try to keep the Passover laws during the entire week.   Some eat corn, rice, and beans during Passover while others avoid these things along with all their derivatives such as corn starch, oils, and syrups.  As a Reform rabbi, I don’t normally get many questions about kashrut but they seem to come up more at this time of year.

The Torah tells us to eat unleavened bread during Passover and to avoid eating and having anything that is hametz, i.e. leavened, in our homes.  But what is leaven?  In Mishneh Pesachim 2:5 (a 3rd century CE rabbinical work), we are told that in order to fulfill our obligation on Passover we must eat unleavened wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats.  This is because these are the very same products that have the potential to become hametz if not scrupulously watched in their initial preparation.  What makes our matzah kosher for Passover is that it has been carefully timed from the moment water comes into contact with the wheat to prevent any ‘leavening’ from occurring.   So any food, without a Kosher for Passover symbol, containing wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats is considered hametz and is strictly forbidden during Passover.

I have to say that it’s fairly easy to avoid spelt.  What is spelt anyway?  Barley is not found in many products.  Abstaining from rye bread isn’t much of an imposition.   Oats can be more difficult but most of us can forgo oatmeal for breakfast.  It is wheat though that makes things challenging. What this means is no wheat pasta, bread, crackers, cereals, soy sauce (yes, I was seriously bummed to learn that it contains wheat), snacks, and etc.

What about corn, peanuts, peas, millet, lentils, and rice?   Now, this gets to be a bit more complicated but it all comes down to whether you want to observe Ashkenazi (East European) or Sephardic (Spanish) customs.   

The Ashkenazi rabbis, beginning in the 13th century, decided to add legumes and seeds to the list of prohibitions while the Sephardic rabbis did not.  What is the reason for the stringency of our Eastern European ancestors?   Firstly, rice and legumes could be cooked in such as way as to resemble the five forbidden grains so that if one eats a rice cake, for example, they may accidentally eat a wheat one.  Secondly, the five grains could get mixed up with rice or legumes in the fields or packaging, especially in a pre-modern setting and therefore, we should avoid them.  The last reason is “keeping the traditions of our ancestors”, namely, because our grandparents observed Passover in this way, we should continue with the practice. 

On other hand, our Mishneh states quite clearly that only wheat, rye, oat, spelt, and barley can become hametz, i.e. leavened.   In the Talmud, Pesachim 35a, we learn that rice and millet cannot become leavened, they can only decay or spoil, therefore they are not considered hametz.  Maimonides, in the Middle Ages, also emphasized that only the five grains are prohibited.   “Rice, millet, beans, lentils and the like, though, cannot become hametz;  even if one kneads rice flour or the like in boiling water and covers it with a cloth until it swells up like dough which has fermented, this is permitted for eating on Passover.”  (See Chametz Umatzah 5:1 and Artscroll “The Festivals in Halachah”)    Since corn, beans, and legumes are not considered hametz then of course their oils and by products would be considered suitable for Passover. 

So what will it be?  A Sephardic Passover or Ashkenazi?   You can also see this as an opportunity to eat more protein and vegetables.  Hmmmm, the decision of course is yours alone.   And remember it’s only for 7 days anyway…  Chag Sameach!