Tag Archives: chametz

Rice and beans for Ashkenazim on Passover? You could be lucky too.

Beans_Kidney_BlogWhile many Ashkenazim (Germanic or Eastern European Jews) have long considered Sephardim (Spanish/Mediterranean Jews) or Mizrahim (Middle Eastern Jews) lucky for being able to consume rice on Passover, this staple grain may soon be accepted for them as well. As the American diet continues to change (where individuals can choose to be gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, or vegetarian) there has also been an ongoing debate in the Ashkenazi community about whether to start accepting kitniyot into the weekly Passover diet. Kitniyot (from the Hebrew word for “little things”) is a general category for such foods as legumes, pulses, corn, soybeans, peas, poppy seeds, and even rice, that like chametz (cereal grains such as wheat, or processed foods containing cereal grains such as cake or pasta) have been forbidden by Ashkenazi rabbis for centuries. (While many in the Sephardic world do consume kitniyot, it really varies region to region, such as Moroccans who generally do not consume rice, but may have chickpeas and fresh green beans). Because of today’s stricter labeling and processing requirements, it’s difficult to defend the tradition based on the possibility that a food product could have been contaminated, and the rule against kitniyot is not written in the Torah.

While some are starting to change by embracing rice and beans during Passover, many still prefer sticking to what they were brought up with. (It’s hard to change tradition!)

Here are some interesting and recent articles about the topic,
and the changes that some rabbis in the conservative movements are making.

And another regarding the legality of quinoa.

Henna: Hametz for Passover?

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©Noam Sienna: “A Contemporary Piece with the Hebrew Alphabet”

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Noam Sienna about his research and discoveries regarding henna in the Middle East and Mediterranean, and he shared some interesting things about the practice in the Jewish communities with regards to Passover:

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©Noam Sienna: “A Contemporary Interpretation of Moroccan Style”

In Jewish communities, henna was not done during Passover, but rather right before. Because henna is made from dried and ground henna leaves (and not a grain product), it is not technically chametz or leaven. But it seems that because the process to make the henna dye resembles the making of dough for bread, it was considered to be analogous to chametz and therefore not permitted during the Passover holiday. Anthropologist Erich Brauer observed among Kurdish Jews in the 1940s that when making henna, they mixed henna powder with water and kneaded it in a bowl with sumac, an acidic spice; it was then left to sit for several hours or overnight to allow the henna to break down into a strong dye. Even though no rising or fermentation process took place, this process was referred to as hamirit hinna (‘henna’s yeast’) and therefore seen as inappropriate for Passover. In effort to use up their henna, early on the 14th of Nissan (the morning of the eve of the Seder) Kurdish and Moroccan Jews would apply it to their hair, hands, and feet, which would generally last one good week — the length of time of the holiday. 

Henna also occasionally appeared at the Mimounah — a unique North African festival immediately following Passover. (Perhaps it doesn’t appear more often because they had painted themselves right before the holiday, and therefore, their hands would still have had the stains.) Passover begins the fifty-day countdown to Shavuot (a harvest festival also commemorating the giving of the Torah), and on Mimounah there was a ritual of sending henna between boys and girls around the age of five, to mark the beginning of what was seen as an ‘engagement’ period between them and the Torah that would culminate in Shavuot. This union would be played out between a young boy and a young girl, whereby the family of the ‘groom’ would send henna, candies, and jewelry to the family of the ‘bride’ on Mimounah, followed by a mock ‘wedding’ on Shavuot (with the hope that perhaps one day when they are older — God willing — they will actually get married).”

For more information, please check out Noam Sienna’s blog and website:
Eshkol haKofer and Henna by Sienna

Cleansing your sins for Passover? It’s time to start preparing.

“My mother never wanted a cleaning lady to help (for Passover) because she believed that wherever you were cleaning your chametz, you were also cleaning your avonot — your sins. She used to tell my older sister who was not yet married, ‘Clean more, more, more and the chattan (groom) will come faster.'”

— Sonia Arusy (Tunisian)

MorgueFile_sunset2_blogThe holiday of Passover in truth begins today, when we sweep up fallen Hamantaschen crumbs from Purim and start the methodical process of cleaning out our homes from top to bottom. Back a few generations ago, the act of cleaning was taken very seriously in eastern countries. In wealthy homes in Morocco (where hiring help was affordable), individuals were paid to remove ALL of the stuffing from every pillow and mattress, pick it clean, stuff it back in, and sew the cases back up. Some individuals from India noted that their walls were all freshly painted, and their floors stained, while in Ethiopia it was commonplace to break all of the pottery (including bowls, cups, plates, and pots) from the past year and buy new ones beginning with Passover. In Egypt and Lebanon, copper pots were brought to specialists who would clean and polish them until they became almost white in appearance, a process called imbay’yid (meaning, “to whiten” in Arabic). And overall in many of these communities, it was essential for the whole family to go to a seamstress or tailor a few weeks before the Seder to get measured for new clothing, which was often made of a white cloth.

What is most interesting is the connection of cleaning one’s house to cleansing one’s soul. As with most Jewish rituals, the physical act of observance is often tied to something deeper, higher, and more spiritual. There is an old saying, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” which is derived from a basic principle mentioned throughout the Bible. In the passage Exodus 19:10 (Oxford Annotated Bible), the Lord tells Moses: “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready by the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.” From this we learn that in order to receive God, it is important to cleanse oneself on the outside as a step towards spiritual purification (for the inside). During the weeks and days leading up to Passover we take the time to cleanse our homes and ourselves so that by the eve of the Seder we are ready to receive God once again, and remember how our ancestors were once freed to start anew.

Question: How do you prepare for the coming holiday?  

Did you know?: The myth that ALL Sephardim eat rice.

RiceDid you know that some of the most Sephardic of Sephardim simply do not eat rice at all during Pesach? Yes, it’s true! Recently I interviewed a woman (thank you FaceTime!) straight from her Gibraltar apartment who informed me that while all other kitniyot (such as beans, chickpeas, peas, string beans) were permitted during the holiday week, rice simply was never something that they would eat. I was surprised, and said to her, “But Spain is right there, and Spanish is one of your main languages. Surely you are just about as Sephardic as it gets!?” After speaking with so many Jews from all over the Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and even Asian world, I have come to realize that this Ashkenazic belief is not completely true. While most non-Ashkenazim do eat rice, there are still many that never did and still do not. The reasons are not clear, but it seems that those communities who had rice as a staple in their diet going back centuries were most likely permitted to consume rice for Passover (but not without it’s strict sorting and cleaning requirements). Another reason may have had more to do with the local rabbi at the time, and his final decision (which could have been based upon several interpretations of the laws of kashrut) as to what was considered chametz.

QUESTION: Any other Sephardim out there that don’t eat rice? Let me know!

Now that Passover has Passed Over…

Other than Chanukah, Passover is without a doubt the busiest time of year for me professionally. During the month and a half leading up to this year’s holiday life was good and busy. I taught several Passover cooking classes in 3 separate schools, prepared 3 full Seders for different clients (before even getting to my own 2 Seders!) and with whatever time I had left posted diligently on my new Passover blog. Now that the holiday has come and gone I feel relief while at the same time a bit of a letdown. During Passover I had to keep reminding myself to not inadvertently eat bread products or chametz, while now I have to remember that I can. Now’s the time to get back to writing and doing research for my Sephardic Passover cookbook which was the original motivation for my blog. I will still post to my blog but probably not as often.

Question: What are you doing with any leftover or unopened boxes of matzah?

I know that for me any matzah will be put to good use at some point since I have many Passover recipes to write and develop for the cookbook. Last week I stopped by Streit’s matzah factory down on the Lower East Side for the unveiling of the newest post-Passover matzah flavor: poppy seed and onion. You know what? It was surprisingly good! And even though I have had my fill of matzah for some time, I can see why this is a year-round industry. Stay tuned!

Last Search for Chametz: Feather, Wooden Spoon, or Knife?

Candle_BlogAs the first Seder approaches tomorrow night at sundown, it is the tradition in many homes to follow the ritual of b’dikat chametz (Hebrew for, “search for chametz“) to find and discard those very last crumbs considered forbidden during Passover. The tradition is to carry a lit candle and a feather (or something wooden like a small spoon) and sweep up the crumbs into a paper bag. The next morning the bag with all of its contents is to be burned. Many have traditions where the ritual is more like a game where pieces of bread are hidden in a room for children to look for and find.

Vivienne Roumani-Denn, the Libyan scholar and filmmaker (“The Last Jews of Libya”) shared with me her memories of how her father performed this pre-Passover ritual at home:

“For the b’dikat hametz, there was literally no chance that there was any hametz left — they took it very seriously. I remember my father used to take a knife, because it had a sharp edge, and wrap it with a cloth and go into every nook and cranny to remove any possible breadcrumb. He would run the knife around the corners, and you know how there’s a crack between where your stove meets your countertop? He would take the skinniest knife and would clean that space out. And you started minimizing what you bought (the hametz you bought) you planned ahead. We didn’t really do the “selling” business — you just didn’t have it. First of all it was kind of easy because we didn’t eat too many processed foods anyway. So you know, flour — you just made sure that you didn’t have any by the time it got close.”

Chummus or Chametz?

Chickpeas2_blogMany ingredients that are innately kosher the rest of the year, may not be considered kosher during Passover week. While certain foods (such as pasta, cereals, breads, and pastries) are more obviously considered chametz (forbidden) for all, the restrictions for other ingredients vary according to Jewish community. The Ashkenazim are most strict with their rules, and in addition to rice consider all legumes or kitniyot (meaning “little things” in Hebrew) such as beans, peas, corn, and peanuts unanimously forbidden, placing them in the chametz category. In the non-Ashkenazic communities however, the restrictions on specific legumes vary according to community, rabbi, and perhaps even geography or family. Chickpeas are just one of those legumes. Many Sephardim consume all or several types of legumes (in the Syrian world green beans are a Passover favorite, while Egyptian and Moroccans enjoy fava beans), and in Israel one can even find kosher for Passover (KLP) chummus sold in stores. One interesting explanation I heard for this mysterious exclusion is that the word chummus (meaning “chickpeas” in Hebrew — the same word for the popular Middle Eastern spread) sounds too much like the word chametz, so in order to avoid any confusion with the word Ashkenazic rabbis (not as familiar with chickpeas in Europe) decided to forbid it all together. Another reasoning is that these “little things” are often mixed and prepared with grains, or have the potential of being ground up into something resembling flour, which could be mistaken for one of the five grains used in making proper Passover matzah, but this doesn’t make too much sense to me. All forms of potatoes, including potato flour, are accepted by Ashkenazim during Passover without concern that they will be confused for regular flour, so why do legumes pose a risk in this regard? Perhaps it simply comes down to culture and tradition, and since potatoes were abundant and commonly used in Eastern Europe and not chickpeas, then maybe this is the original (and not so technical) reason.

I pose a question to all of you out there:
Do you eat legumes during Passover?
If so, which ones?

Purim is over and the countdown has begun: Time to start that spring cleaning!

Broom_MorgueFileNow that Purim has ended the official countdown to Passover has begun folks! This is the time when many Jews begin the step-by-step process of cleaning their house, or apartment (or even office) from top to bottom. Some might take this very seriously by cleaning one room at a time and then closing it off until the first Seder night, while others who have the possibility to go away for the whole week of Passover try to avoid the process entirely. While growing up in New York City in the late ’60s/early ’70s, my parents didn’t really adhere to any particular cleaning ritual. Instead we just tried to finish off whatever bread products we still had in the house by the time the first Seder began, and then allowed only matzah into the kitchen for the duration of the holiday week. But whether it is because I have always been somewhat of a compulsive cleaner, or because I just happen to find some kind of peace in tradition, I have always been fascinated by the ritual of cleaning for this holiday.

As I conducting interviews with Sephardic Jews about their overall memories of Passover while growing up, I was struck by how early their families had begun to prepare for the holiday, and how committed they were to every cleaning detail. Their childhood memories of Passover in the Old Country were vivid and nostalgic, and they appeared to literally light up as they described to me what they and their family did at home. But what was most interesting was that while they didn’t really want to continue the effort it would take to keep up these traditions, they recognized at the same time that something had been lost. They missed the feeling that they once got from the cleaning rituals that made the holiday more special. They also missed knowing that it was something that they shared with others who were doing the same thing in their community. By the time the first night of the Seder arrived, they were more than ready, perhaps as if they had earned it in some way. The Seder itself marked the separation between “old” and “new,” or more significantly, before the Exodus from Egypt and after. In fact the more I spoke to them I realized that the Passover holiday didn’t really begin with the first Seder at all, but rather with the first day of cleaning — the day after Purim — which culminated in the Passover holiday one month later. Without this period of cleaning, organizing, and planning for the Seder, the Passover holiday itself would have been less meaningful to them.

Here is some of what Renée, a Moroccan-born Jew living in Queens, shared with me regarding her memories for the preparations of the holiday:

“My mother used to start koshering the house a month before. We had three bedrooms, so she used to start always with our bedroom, then her bedroom, then the dining room, and the kitchen was the last thing that she used to kosher. A man would come to redo all the mattresses in the house, like the wool that was inside. We used to pay him and I remember the wool, it was like spring cleaning. He would sew them back together with a big needle. It was beautiful, everything was new. The dishes were new, the tablecloth was new — you felt the holiday. The last day, before the holiday, we almost ate outside — almost in the stairs because the bread was out of the house. We used to have a big hallway, and three bedrooms. The toilet was in front, and in back you had the kitchen and three bedrooms, so we were almost at the door or at the stairs by the last day. And every neighbor used to do the same, so you really felt the holiday. The cooking…”

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