We need a new opening verse for the Four Questions. I propose the following: Why is this night NOT different from all other nights?
Here is another question (Pesach, or at least the seder, is a time for questions, after all): What do Rebridge Beer, Gluten Free Favorite Sandwich Bread Mix, and the gluten-free version of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies all have in common?
According to a Sephardi rabbi in Lakewood, they are all permitted on Pesach despite the fact that none are so certified. The beer, this rabbi notes, is made from sorghum and everyone may drink it, while the other two are only for Sephardim, and anyone else who does not observe the ban on kitniyot (see below).
He likely is correct, on a technical level. The only real question is why anyone would want to have beer, bread, and Rice Krispies (or Post Cocoa Pebbles) on Pesach.
Pesach is eight days long in the diaspora. For eight days, we are commanded to keep all leaven off our tables and out of our homes. This is because we are free to live our lives without the crack of a taskmaster’s whip on our backs, are grateful to God for that gift, and look forward to a time when all humankind shares this freedom, in a world free from hate, divisiveness, and violence.
This is what Pesach stands for. It is why Pesach should be different from all other days.
And yet we strive to make Pesach look ever more like the rest of the year. Faux chametz products abound in the kosher aisles – everything from “Pesach rolls” to fake pasta to “pizza dough” to too many more foods like these. They all come with hefty price tags, yet we pay the price so as not to feel deprived of our mundane comfort foods.
Once upon a time, such foods probably never would have been certified because of the principal of marit ayin – doing something that has the appearance of being forbidden, or that causes another person to think that a forbidden thing actually is permissible. Such acts are prohibited even if done in closed rooms with no possibility of being seen.
Eating “macaroni” salad with your sh’murah matzah and tuna fish sandwich has the appearance of eating something that is forbidden. Someone seeing it may think it is real pasta, and that real pasta is permitted on Pesach.
For whatever reason, marit ayin no longer applies to Pesach. That is wrong, because it gives the impression that celebrating one of the greatest moments in our history, God’s redeeming Israel from the slavery of Egypt and our birth as a free people, is too burdensome for us to celebrate.
Some of the fault for this, however, must be laid at the feet of those who make Pesach a burden foodwise by constantly creating new unnecessary restrictions and adding to existing unnecessary ones.
And, yes, this refers to the ban on kitniyot. Near the start of the last millennia, a rabbi in Ashkenaz determined that legumes (varieties of beans, lentils, peas, peanuts), for one reason or another, should be banned on Pesach. Rice soon was added to the list, even though the Talmud specifically (a) suggests that rice should be eaten at a seder and (b) states that Yochanan ben Nuri, the lone dissenting mishnaic sage who banned rice, was ignored by all his colleagues (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim 114b). For the record, he also advocated saying a form of grace after eating bread made out of rice (see BT B’rachot 37a), but not even those who ban rice from the Pesach table agree with that ruling. Eventually, the derivatives of these items also were banned.
Corn is also banned because “corn” is among the five Land of Israel species that are not permitted on Pesach, except that what we call corn was unknown before Columbus set sail on the Nina. It certainly never grew in the Land of Israel.
What is the result of the ever-expanding kitniyot ban? You can buy a small jar of fake mustard for an exorbitant price, even though there is nothing intrinsically wrong with French’s Mustard. For that matter, there is nothing wrong with Hellman’s Mayonnaise, Heinz Ketchup, or Dannon Light & Fit Greek Yogurt, among many other products (there is that list again), or of Coca-Cola in a white cap (the more expensive yellow-capped bottle is the “kosher for Passover” variety).
There is the matter of “minhag avot,” the custom of the ancestors. It is a valid concern, to be sure, but it is not writ in stone. We do not observe every custom of our forbears, especially if we view the custom as misguided or inappropriate. (All those who still take a live chicken on erev Yom Kippur and wave it around his or head please raise your hands.) Kitniyot never was appropriate. It was labeled a “foolish custom” from the very beginning. It still is minhag sh’tut.
Eliminating the ban would allow us all to eat healthier and less expensively on Pesach, while also eliminating the need for all of these faux chametz products – whether with a hechsher or on someone’s Excel list of acceptable foods.
Have a wonderful, joyous, and kosher Pesach.