Is Sushi Chametz? Kitniyos explained to all 4 Sons

Since the end of the era of the Geonim (circa 4798 SC – around 1037 CE) no longer did there exist an authoritative central body recognized by all of world Jewry to decide on Halachic disputes, this resulting in different communities adopting different customs. One such example is the consumption of kitniyos (legumes) on Pesach, prohibited by Ashkenazic authorities, but permitted by most Sephardic authorities. Does this mean that some say Kitniyos are Chametz? No. But are there perhaps souls that have a greater “sensitivity” to Chametz that requires them to be more careful?

Dear Rabbi!

I really love sushi and other rice products and every Pesach I have this problem: I am Ashkenazic, and can’t eat kitniyos. If it was something that everyone was prohibited from, I would be fine, I also like pizza and I manage. What bothers me is that Sephardic Jews are allowed to eat kitniyos, so why is it my fault that my rabbis, 1000 years ago, decided to prohibit it? Why could my Sephardic neighbor eat rice and I can’t? Can’t all the rabbis get together and decide if it’s chametz or not?

Sushi Craving Sarah

Dear Sushi Craving Sarah!

I’d like to answer your question in the spirit of Pesach, with four answers. I will direct the answers to the “four sons” – the wise, the wicked, the simpleton and the one who doesn’t know to ask (I believe that these four sons are not different people; we can find within ourselves the four sons dominating different parts of our life, and at times battling over the control of our psyche).

For the “Wise Son:”

As you know, on Chanukah, before we light the menorah we say a blessing – “Blessed are you G-d – who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Chanukah candles.”

This is perplexing, for Chanukah, among many more Jewish customs, are not mentioned in the Torah. So how can we say that G-d “commanded us to light the Chanukah candles?” It was clearly a rabbinic edict!

The Talmud addresses this question and tells us that by following the rabbinic edict we are following a biblical law – to adhere to the command of the rabbis! The Torah was designed by G-d to be a system and lifestyle which is subject to the interpretation of the rabbis of the time.

So taking on the authority of the rabbis is mandated by the Torah itself.  If the rabbis say to light Chanukah candles, we, as Jews, actually have a biblical obligation to follow their decree.

Why did the rabbis choose to add more decrees and prohibitions than the Torah itself prescribed? Aren’t 613 laws enough? Did the rabbi’s think they know better than G-d?

The rabbis, in turn, have a biblical obligation, alluded to in the words of the Torah, “And you shall observe My charge” (Vayikrah 18:30), “Make a keeping to my keeping, a protection to my protection” (Talmud, Yevamos 21a); i.e., not just to clarify the words of the Torah, but also to establish protective measures so the Torah will be kept. Hence the many g’zieiros (prohibitive decrees, such as muktzeh), takanos (additional positive practices, like washing hands before eating bread), and minhagim (customs, which can consist of either of the above, albeit with a lesser strength) which aren’t part of the written Torah, which the rabbis over time established as a “protective layer,” a “fence” to ensure the observance of the biblical laws themselves. Once a decree is made, it can only be removed by a greater and wiser court which would have the full scope of understanding and spiritual appreciation as to the reason this decree was initially made. This explains why in later generations, especially now, we cannot change these decrees.

When all Jews lived in Israel, and even later when communities in other countries sprung up, so long all the Jews had communication with the Sanhedrin, there was one center which everyone followed, and these rabbi settled any dispute which came their way through the vote of the majority.

The hegemony of one halachic center over all Jewish communities worldwide went on for a few hundred years even after the dissolving of the Sanhedrin, as long as there was one center of Jewish life, which were the great Talmudic Yeshivosin Babylon and environs. However, later, with the dispersal of the Jewish people to distant lands, there was no longer one center of Jewish life, nor was there a unified front for Halachic thought.

Hence, in this post-Talmudic era, we began to see unsettled arguments among rabbis, since one rabbi did not necessarily have the authority over another rabbi to enforce his opinion, nor was there proper communication around the world for the rabbis to be able to challenge one another and reach a unified conclusion.

What happened as a result is that every community followed its own leaders, and from here we have the birth of the Sephardic (Spanish, North-African and Meditranian), Ashkenazic (European), Yemenite and other traditions withinHalacha.

The case with kitniyos worked like this:

There is an opinion in the Talmud of one of the sages, Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri that Orez (what we translate today as rice, but it may be a different grain) is prohibited on Pesach. Although this opinion wasn’t accepted as Halacha by Talmudic consensus, nonetheless, hundreds of years later we find writings of leading Ashkenzi sages attesting to a tradition of their predecessors to refrain from eating kitniyos on Pesach, not because it’s chametz, but due to several other reasons:

  1.  Many grains are ground into flour which resemble regular flour (rice, corn, soy are good examples of this).
  2. The kitniyos are often cooked in the same way other grains are cooked (think of kasha, oatmeal, barley, etc.).
  3. The kitniyos often are mixed with other “real” grains.
  4. Some kitniyos are almost indistinguishable from real grains (cumin, for instance, is very similar to wild barley beans and are handled in the same factories; especially nowadays when they are often washed and bleached in the factories, which may, in some cases, render the entire mixture chametz.)

So kitniyos is a g’zeirah which did develop at a later time in Jewish history, and therefore only became the law for the Jews living under the Halachic authorities which mandated it. That is, the Jews of Ashkenazic lands – eastern and western Europe.

Although the rabbis of some Sephardic communities, such as the Moroccan Jews, also adopted this stringency, rabbis from other Sephardic vicinities did not; thus, the Jews in those lands never became obligated to adhere to the prohibition.

Furthermore, since the stringency was enacted at a time that there was no comprehensive rabbinic authority over all Jews collectively, it is disputable if it received the status of a g’zeirah, or rather the status of a minhag. Either way, a Jewish minhag is regarded as Torah and is binding, but sometimes, when there are medical concerns which require consumption or use of kitniyos-containing products, and when there is no other alternative, a rabbi should be consulted.

But otherwise, we have a biblical obligation to follow our rabbis’ decisions. Their wisdom is regarded as prophetic, and we follow their guidance with pure faith, just as we adhere to every Torah precept.


For the “Wicked Son:”

In the last decades, we hear quite convincing sounding voices from among orthodox circles, claiming that the time has come to lift the ban of kitniyos.

Although they may be well meaning: they want to make it easier and more enjoyable for people to keep Pesach, I think they are shortsighted.

The attempts of trying to make Judaism appealing to people by lifting and removing various restrictions, in laws of Shabbat, in conversion laws, in family-related matters and so on, have been proven, in our recent history, to be a grave mistake.

Creating the notion within people’s minds that “Judaism is easy,” and that “rabbis can find a heter for anything” besides for being untrue, is also counterproductive. Judaism, first and foremost, before being a deeply philosophical, thought-provoking and inspirational religion, is a system of Divine laws.

Laws, by nature, are restricting. The point, of course, isn’t to restrict us and make life hard, but the only way to fulfill G-d’s will is to abide by His laws. We must bring people close to Torah, not the Torah close to them. Judaism is about designing ourselves according to the Torah’s design, not about designing the Torah according to our design.

When there is a true need for a heter, even extremely “ultra-orthodox” rabbis try to find heterim for these complicated situations, but to turn heterim into a way of life is detrimental to Judaism.

Just to note, “Reform” Judaism didn’t start with allowing Jews marry gentiles, it started with rabbis who were trained in an orthodox system, but with a corrupt understanding of the heart of Judaism, who were seeking extensive heterimproduction. When so many heterim were made and it became an integral part of the Jewish society, it led the way to create the greatest heter of all – the total disregarding of Halacha and Shulchan Aruch.

Almost 300 years later we see what has become of this movement…

Ironically, perhaps the first rabbi who attempted to lift the ban of kitniyos, was a member of a rabbinical organization (the Jewish Consistory of Westphalia) which soon after became the harbinger of the reform movement.

True, we mustn’t look to enforce extra stringencies upon the community (although someone who takes it upon himself is praiseworthy), however, we mustn’t create an environment that is looking to remove as many as restrictions as possible. If we do so, we are creating a slippery slope which we don’t know where it will lead us to. But we could definitely see to where similar actions led.


For the “Simpelton:”

You feel deprived of your really-kosher-for-Pesach-sushi. Here is what I have to tell you:

Did you ever hear a young child who suffers from an allergy to peanuts complaining to his mom, “It’s not fair! Why can Yossi and Shira eat Bamba, and I can’t?”

Obviously, only an allergic child who doesn’t know the repercussion of eating peanuts for him would cry this way, if he’s older and more mature, or if G-d forbid he needed to spend a few days in the hospital, he’ll handle the “ban on peanuts” in a more understanding way.

Are peanuts bad? – No. For an allergic person? – Yes!

Chametz on Pesach to a Jew is like peanuts to someone with a peanut allergy; even a trace of chametz can be detrimental to the soul.

Are kitniyos chametz? – No. But for an Ashkenazic Jew – they are problematic! An Ashkenazic Jew is more sensitive to chametz and has to be careful, the same way a person who is allergic to peanuts cannot eat a food processed in the same plant where peanuts were processed.

What makes a Sephardic Jew more “immune”, thereby allowing him to eat kitniyos?

Going back to the first answer, I would like to suggest the following interesting explanation, for which I have no clear proof, but it’s just a suggestion based on facts:

When G-d instructs us to listen to the rabbis, it doesn’t mean that He has no control over them. G-d controls everything in the world including the rabbis. He makes everything happens, and it is He who puts the decisions of the rabbis into their heads. It’s not like G-d tells us: “Hey Jews! I’m staying out of the argument – whatever the rabbi says you follow!”

G-d chooses to transmit some of His will to us directly in the written Torah, “in His own words”; some of it in the oral Torah, concepts which are all recorded in the Mishna and Talmud by now; and some laws He chose to transmit to us in later times through further developments.

G-d, in His infinite wisdom, has inserted sparks of holiness in material objects, which when either consumed or, alternatively, rendered un-kosher, rejected by Jews, become elevated through revealing that they are just a modem to reveal G-d’s will in this world. G-d, in His infinite wisdom, leads every person to the sparks allocated for him to redeem.

Perhaps, some sparks were inserted into kitniyos, (and you can apply this concept to any aspect within Halacha on which differing opinions and practices exist) to be redeemed and other sparks to be redeemed by way of rejection. For some reason G-d chose certain souls for the task of consuming the sparks and others for the task of rejecting. How can the same item be kosher and non-kosher at once?

In order to make that happen at the right time, He enacted the kitniyos ban at a time when it wouldn’t be binding upon all Jews, so the ones which need to reach “their” sparks to consume will be born to families which belong to communities to which kitniyos are kosher on Pesach, and the others  to non-kitniyos eaters.

Every soul has its own unique mission in life, Judaism is about unity, not uniformity, and kitniyos is one shining example of this concept: we all follow the same Torah, and our primary Pesach laws and customs are practically identical, no matter if we lived in France and Germany, or in Cordoba and Aleppo.

At the same time, every community has its unique Pesach foods, customs and songs and even a few Halachos which reflect its uniqueness. We live up to the description of Haman, an anti-Semite who knew Jews well: ‘There is one nation” he declared! Yet “they are spread out and divided among the nations,” adapting to different countries and styles and refining the final sparks left in those lands, needed to bring forth the coming of Moshiach; a time when the one nation will once again live in one land and serve one G-d in unison.

Perhaps, when Moshiach comes, the Sanhedrin may decide to allow you to have sushi on Pesach (or will decide that your Sephardic neighbor must stop eating sushi on Pesach…)

Let’s wait and see!


For the Son “Who Doesn’t Know to Ask:”

Sometimes people perceive simplicity and ignorance as a downside. I think that while “an ignoramus cannot be pious,” and we are obligated to learn and know Torah, we still have what to learn from a simple, ignorant Jew:

If he was taught that kitniyos are prohibited on Pesach, he accepts that as the law and follows through without asking questions. He “doesn’t know to ask.”

To him, what he heard from his rabbi or from his father as a child, is the word of G-d without going in to the intricacies: is it mi’doryasa or mi’drabanan; is it a minhag or a g’zeirah?

In these last final moments of Galus, it is a virtue we should strive to reach.

“Even the great minds who are here must lay aside their intellects and not be ruled by their reason and knowledge, for they are susceptible to being misguided by their intellect to the point that their end may be a bitter one. The essential thing in these times of the “footsteps of Moshiach” is not to follow intellect and reason, but to fulfill Torah and mitzvot wholeheartedly, with simple faith in the G-d of Israel.” (Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch, Hayom yom – 12 Teves)