Stringencies not worth beans

Stringencies not worth beans

Welcome to my annual rant.

Pesach begins in a little over a week, and all it will cost us to celebrate it is an arm, leg, and a second mortgage on our homes (or a third, if we have children in day school).

Okay, so I am exaggerating. We get to keep the leg.

Seriously, the high cost of Pesach is a scandal on a number of levels — the burden placed on the large number of observant poor being high on the list — but the price gougers are not the only culprits. Indeed, they are only living up to the highest standards of modern economics: When you have a captive market, you can charge whatever that market will bear.

There even is some justification for the high cost. For one thing, some of the holiday hawkers only make Pesach products and, in the case of hand-made shemurah matzoh and its by-products, to do so is an expensive proposition. Obviously, the price will reflect that expense. For another thing, the constantly proliferating varieties of "faux-chametz" foods may have a long shelf life, but they have virtually no post-Pesach sales value. The cost of tossing all or most of these products into the dustbin of holiday history will be factored in to the overall price.

While there is some justification for higher prices, however, there is no justification for prices that are outrageously high. (Prices are much higher outside the New York metropolitan area. In Omaha, for example, a five-pound box of Manischewitz matzoh costs $10; in Dayton, you can only get four pounds for that price. A 64-ounce bottle of kosher-for-Passover grape juice goes for $5 in Pittsburgh.) The Pesach profiteers, however, are only able to get away with the high prices because the demand for their products is huge. We are their captive market and they will charge accordingly.

Yet why are we captive? Clearly it is because Pesach comes with so many food restrictions built in. Unless you want to survive on a diet rich in matzoh, potatoes, and eggs, you need to buy what the purveyors are purveying, whatever the cost.

The catch here, of course, is that Pesach does not come with that many food restrictions built in. Those restrictions have been added over time, with the biggest cost-adding cause — the kitniyot ban — making its debut a mere 800 years ago, give or take a decade or two. Kitniyot is the term used by the Mishnah to describe legumes and, in its Pesach guise, now includes so much more.

Put another way, the rabbinic proclivity for unnecessary and sometimes unwarranted legal stringencies (a mainly Ashkenazic tendency) is the real culprit.

"The Torah has pity on the money of Israel," says the Talmud (see, for example, the Babylonian Talmud tractate Yoma 39a). The rabbis who followed them, apparently, had no such concern.

The kitniyot ban from the beginning was classified as a stringency. Sephardic rabbinic authorities actually laughed at the ban when it was first introduced, calling it a "minhag sh’tut," or nonsensical practice. A handful of Ashkenazic rabbis felt the same way, including the 13th-century Talmud commentator Rabbi Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise, who stated flat out that the kitniyot "custom is based on an error." Inexplicably, he also said the rule should stand "out of consideration for those who prohibit" kitniyot. (See Rabbi Isaac ben Moses’ commentary Or Zaru’a ‘:59c, which cites Rabbi Samuel’s statement.)

As the 18th-century halachic authority Rabbi Jacob Emden noted in his attack on the ban, without kitniyot, people had to stuff themselves with matzoh in order to feel sated. (See his Mor u-Ketzi’ah commentary to Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 453:1, in which he also argues that banning kitniyot can lead to actual violations of the laws against eating chametz, rather than the other way around.)

Not only would returning kitniyot to the Pesach table help bring down prices, it would also help bring up the healthful quality of the Pesach diet.

The ban came into being presumably as a fence against the ban on actual chametz. If it looked like grain and acted like grain, it should be banned even if it was not grain. That is still good logic, but if kashrut authorities really believed that today, how can we explain the fact that quinoa is permissible on Pesach? It does not just look like a grain and act like one, it is a grain. If a real non-chametz grain may be eaten on Pesach, why are non-grains still forbidden?

As for the claim that the ban on kitniyot actually stretches back to the rabbis of the talmudic age in the Land of Israel, thereby giving the ban an overwhelmingly authoritative pedigree, there is no evidence whatever to support this, but there are statements in the Talmud to the contrary.

The kitniyot ban, however, is not the only culprit. Adding to the high cost of Pesach, as well, is a seemingly ever-growing number of other stringencies, such as how much matzoh one must eat at the seder.

Once upon a time, a kezayit — the volume of matzoh required for each blessing — meant an amount equivalent to the size of an olive, which translates into one-third to one-half the volume of an egg (the egg being a standard for measuring volume for such mitzvot), or anywhere from a half-ounce to one and a half ounces, depending on who is giving the answer.

A statement by the 18th-century halachist Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, known more commonly as the Noda b’Yehudah, that eggs were twice their size in talmudic times led to rabbis constantly expanding how much matzoh should be eaten at the seder to fulfill the mitzvah. Today, many people believe it when they are told that to fulfill the various matzoh-related precepts at the seder means eating two pieces that together equal 6? inches by 7 inches; adding an additional piece of equal size for the afikoman; and adding a 4 inch by 7 inch piece to fulfill the rabbinic commandment of korech (Hillel’s matzoh-and-maror sandwich). This is the equivalent of one-and-a-half matzot shemura. Put 1′ people around the table and that is about $85 worth of shemura matzoh for the two sedarim.

As noted earlier, "The Torah has pity on the money of Israel." This applies, among other things, to the fulfillment of ritual obligations. Thus, in BT Bechorot 40a, a ruling regarding a properly slaughtered animal by Rabbi Akiva was challenged by Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri, who believed a more stringent rule was appropriate. Shot back Rabbi Akiva, "How long will you waste the money of Israel?"

How long, indeed?