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Is Sushi Chametz?

The “Four Sons” Discover the In’s and Out’s of the Kitniyos Ban

By Levi Liberow •

QUESTION > 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 were 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? Sarah


Answer >

Dear Sarah! I will attempt to answer your question in the spirit of Pesach, with four answers. I will direct the responses 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.


The Wise Son

First I would like to turn to the wise son within you:

I will attempt to sum up in a few paragraphs the “ins-and-outs” of the halachic system of decision-making and thus explain why a halacha may be binding upon one Jew, while another from a different community may be exempt, which seems to be one of the points that disturb you about the kitniyos ban.

Let’s begin with Chanukah and Purim: before we light the candles on the menorah and read the megillah we say a blessing – “Blessed are you, Hashem … who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Chanukah lights.”

Purim and Chanukkah, among many more Jewish customs, are not mentioned in the written Torah. In fact, Purim only happened after the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash, Chanukah took place even later, so they are technically not even explicitly mentioned in the oral Torah received by Moshe Rabbeinu!  So how can we say that “Hashem commanded us to light the Chanukah lights?” It was clearly a rabbinic edict!

It’s a Mitzvah D’Oraisa
to do Mitzvos D’Rabbanan

The Talmud addresses this question and tells us that by following the rabbinic edict we are obeying a biblical law – to adhere to the command of the rabbis! The Torah was designed by Hashem 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 rabbis think they know better than Hashem?


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” (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 gezeiros (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. These are the planks the rabbis established over time 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 larger 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 as all the Jews had communication with the Sanhedrin, there was one center which everyone followed, and these rabbis settled any dispute which came their way through the vote of the majority.

If There’s One Sanhedrin, How can There be Different Shitos?

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 important Talmudic Yeshivos in 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 the Mediterranean countries), Ashkenazic (European), Yemenite and other traditions within Halacha.

[But it’s important to emphasize: all future machlokos are about things left unresolved or unaddressed clearly in the Talmud which is recognized by all traditional Jewish communities! If G-d forbid, someone doesn’t accept that halachic framework as being Divine, he is considered an apikores r”l!]

Why Kitniyos Were Banned

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 a grain that one can make matzah from and be yotze (fulfill his obligation), as well as can become chametz and prohibited on Pesach. Although this opinion wasn’t accepted as Halacha by the sages of the Talmud, nonetheless, hundreds of years later we find writings of leading Ashkenazi sages attesting to a tradition of their predecessors to refrain from eating kitniyos on Pesach, but not because it’s chametz, but due to several other reasons:

a) Many kitniyos-grains are ground into flour which resembles regular grain flour (rice, corn, soy are good examples of this).

b) The kitniyos are often cooked in the same way other grains are cooked (think of kasha, oatmeal, barley, etc.).

c) The kitniyos often get mixed with other “real” grains, as in their harvesting process they are stored in the same sacks, processed in the same facilities, and so on.

d) 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 gezeira which did develop at a later time in Jewish history, and therefore only became the law for the Jews living under the Halachic authorities who 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 general rabbinic authority over all Jews collectively, it is disputable if it received the status of a gezeira, 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 or a case of extreme famine (G-d forbid) 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.


 The Wicked Son

Now I take a turn and want to address the “wicked son:”

In the last decades, we hear voices, also from among orthodox circles, which sometimes sound quite convincing, 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 Shabbos, 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 profoundly philosophical, thought-provoking and inspirational religion, is a system of Divine laws.

Not Everything has a “Heter”

Laws, by nature, are restricting. The point, of course, isn’t to limit us and make life hard, but the only way to fulfill Hashem’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, not about crafting the Torah according to our design.

When there is a genuine 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 to marry gentiles, it began with rabbis who were trained in an Orthodox system, but with a corrupt understanding of the heart of Judaism, who were seeking extensive heterim-production. 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, which can “proudly” take the credit for a Holocaust, far greater than Hitler’s…

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 see where similar actions led to.

The Simple Son

Now to the “simpleton:”

You have no desire to know the nitty-gritty of the Halachic system, and neither an agenda to change anything in Jewish tradition. 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 Hashem forbid he needed to spend a few days in the hospital, he’ll handle the “ban on peanuts” in a more understanding way.

“Why can Shira eat Bamba, and I can’t?”

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! Perhaps 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 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 original explanation, for which I have no definitive proof, but it’s just a suggestion based on facts:

Hashem Controls the Rabbis

When Hashem instructs us to listen to the rabbis, it doesn’t mean that He has no control over them. Hashem 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 Hashem tells us: “Hey Jews! I’m staying out of the argument – whatever the rabbi says you follow!”

Hashem 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.

Hashem, 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 medium to reveal Hashem’s will in this world. Hashem, 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, Hashem 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?

The “Sparks” Within the Kitniyos

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 who need to reach “their” sparks to consume will be born to families belonging toto communities in 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 Hashem 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…) or maybe will choose to keep things the same way they are now…

Let’s wait and see!


The Son Who Doesn’t Know to Ask

And 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:

Just Do It!

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 Hashem without going into the intricacies: is it mi’deoraysa or mi’derabanan; is it a minhag or a gezeira?

In these last final moments of Galus, it is a virtue we should all 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 mitzvos wholeheartedly, with simple faith in the Hashem of Israel.” (The Rebbe (Rashab) Nishmaso Eden, Hayom Yom – 12 Teves)

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