Barbara Shamir’s Passover table may get one new addition this year, to accompany the tender brisket, rich potato kugel, gefilte fish with a horseradish sidekick, and ubiquitous flourless chocolate cake.
It's tehina -- also called tahini -- once banned, now welcome at her table, thanks to a rabbinical dispensation.
In previous years, Shamir, of Olivette, would not allow her husband, Amos, to prepare or serve this sesame seed-based sauce during the holiday. That’s because the condiment contains “kitniyot,” foods that include legumes, certain seeds and peas. For many Ashkenazi Jews, or those of Eastern European descent, kitniyot is not kosher to eat during Passover.
But a recent ruling in the Conservative movement, from its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, is putting beans, rice and all sorts of legumes back on many Passover tables.
“They said it’s now acceptable for all Jews to eat kitniyot, legumes, on Passover,” said Rabbi Noah Arnow of Kol Rinah, a Conservative synagogue in University City. “There’s nothing not kosher about them at all. They are perfectly acceptable for Passover.”
Arnow said the Rabbinical Council’s committee found that not eating kitniyot was more of a long-standing tradition, than a law of faith. He also noted that many Jews from other parts of the world do not follow this tradition.
No one knows exactly why legumes were originally forbidden, Arnow said. Starting in the 13th century, some Jewish communities in Eastern Europe stopped eating them during Passover.
Arnow said it may have been related to a ban on other foods considered “chametz” during Passover, particularly any type of leavened bread made from five types of grains: wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye.
“Some explanations were things like, ‘Wheat can get mixed in with rice sometimes,’ or ‘They used the same bags or barrels for both, so there might be a little left over,’” he said. “Or ‘These are poor people’s foods, and on a holiday celebration we don’t want to eat poor people’s foods.’”
But Arnow said none of these reasons are “legitimate nowadays, when things are so carefully packaged, and for people eating on a budget, the ‘poor people’s’ issue is not really appropriate.”
“Oftentimes they can be less expensive options for people trying to keep kosher for Passover,” he said. “For vegetarians and vegans and people who are gluten-free, this expands the number of things they can eat.”
The change will be a help for Shamir this year, as she prepares to feed her family during the holiday. A big concern, she said, is whether her grandchildren will eat what she serves, because they are “very picky eaters.” And some of their favorite foods, like peanut butter, are kitniyot.
“My youngest granddaughter is very particular about what she eats, and she will eat peanut butter, so I don’t have to worry so much about her being well fed for the holidays, so I’m very excited about having options for her,” she said.
The ruling also means that her husband’s beloved tehina may make its debut at their Passover table. A Yemenite, Shamir’s husband of 42 years doesn’t follow her tradition against eating kitniyot during Passover; nevertheless he still could never have it. That’s because even preparing kitniyot in the same kitchen or on the same dishes as those used to serve the Passover meal can render everything on the menu not kosher for the holiday.
Now, Shamir said she feels “comfortable doing something for my husband who has done so much for me over the years with this.”
“For my husband and for allowing it to happen in my house and in my kitchen, I feel like I can accommodate that,” Shamir said. “It does not mean I have to eat it, but I can allow it to be served, or I can allow my husband to make his tehina and be very happy.”
Arnow emphasized that there is no obligation or requirement for people, like Shamir, to start eating kitniyot “if for them it would make it stop feeling like Passover.”
“In my own house, we’re not having kitniyot, we’re not having legumes, because that’s not what we eat on Passover,” he said. “We have rice and beans at least once a week in my house, so we try to make Passover just feel different.”
For as much as there has been focus on food for this year’s Passover, Arnow said he is looking forward to celebrating the Seder's remembrance of the Israelites’ flight out of Egypt and out of slavery.
“I am looking forward to sitting down at my Passover Seder, with my kids and family and friends," he said, "to really contemplate what freedom and liberation are about, to think about the ways we’re still slaves, the way that we are more free than last year, and the way that people around the world are not nearly yet free enough.”
Passover began last Friday night. For those who follow the Reform tradition or are celebrating in Israel, the holiday lasts for seven days. Conservative and Orthodox Jews celebrate for eight days.