Wednesday, April 05, 2006

As if There Weren't Enough Confusion This Time of Year

Today's New York Times Dining & Wine Section has an article by Joan Nathan on new leniencies introduced by rabbis who are trying to "simplify" Passover observance for their constituents.

At least, that's the way it's presented.

In reality, none of these so-called leniencies are actually new. Jews who think that baking soda isn't kosher for Passover because it is "leavening" are simply mistaken. Only the "five grains" -- oats, wheat, barley, rye, and spelt -- can meet the halakhic definition of "leaven," or chametz. Baking powder typically contains corn starch, which is problematic for those who adhere to Ashkenazi custom, but the corn starch can be replaced with potato starch to make kosher for Passover baking powder. There is nothing wrong with the leavening per se.

Another supposedly new leniency is allowing legumes as well as grains such as rice and corn. According to the article, "Jews in medieval Europe began to keep beans and lentils, as well as grains, from the Passover table because until modern times they were often ground into flour." This is not precisely true. Legumes were considered problematic because they were grown alongside wheat and rye so that the grains could benefit from their nitrogen-fixing properties. Corn and rice were later restricted because they could be ground into flour. Sephardic Jews never observed these restrictions. Instead, they carefully separated the legumes from their grain before Passover.

Today, legumes are no longer grown alongside grains, so the issue should be moot. (See my rant here.) The only reason to refrain from eating legumes, or kitniyot, is the force of communal custom. In Israel Sephardim comprise a larger proportion of the Jewish population than in the U.S. and tend to dictate religious practice for less observant Jews, so consumption of kitniyot is typical. When the Masorti movement ruled that kitniyot could be eaten by Ashkenazim in Israel, they were merely codifying existing practice.

The Passover recipes accompanying the article include a Morrocan dish of Shad With Fava Beans, presumably to celebrate this "freer interpretation of the Passover pantry." Of course, since most New York Jews adhere to the stricter Ashkenazi practice, they won't be able to enjoy this dish during the upcoming holiday. For New York's Sephardim, on the other hand, eating fava beans on Passover is no novelty.

The other recipes are for cakes and cookies, two of which prominently feature "kosher for Passover" leavening. The Double Chocolate Mocha Drop Cookies and Sesame Vanilla Passover Cookies call for kosher for Passover baking powder and confectioner's sugar, respectively. Ironically, the only reason that either of these products require a special "kosher for Passover" version is that the standard formulas include corn starch, which can be eaten by anyone who will eat the fava bean dish. The Sesame-Vanilla cookie recipe is cautious enough to specifically call for "kosher for Passover baking soda." (Baking soda arguably does not require a hekhsher for Passover; at any rate, the most widely available brand, Arm & Hammer, has an OU-P.) Meanwhile, both recipes call for vanilla extract without any reference to the fact that it is typically made with grain alcohol -- that is, real chametz. Real vanilla extract is available with a Passover hekhsher, but it isn't easy to find.

Perhaps I'm being too picky. But it seems to me that American Jews have a tendency to make a big fuss over relatively unimporant matters while ignoring issues that are much more central to halakhah. This problem is exacerbated on Passover when many Jews assume a level of stringency to which they are not normally accustomed. Now, the New York Times and Joan Nathan are adding more confusion to the mix. Joan Nathan, at least, should really know better.

(Cross-Posted to Kosherblog)

10 comments:

Mar Gavriel said...

*sigh*

(Oh, and I'm very maqpidh not to eat fava beans on Passover-- or at any other time of the year, for that matter. They suck. Unless I'm confusing them with pinto beans. No, IIRC pinto beans are not bad.)

amechad said...

"But it seems to me that American Jews have a tendency to make a big fuss over relatively unimporant matters while ignoring issues that are much more central to halakhah."

RIGHT ON TARGET! Reminds me of my uncle (at his Mizrahi son-in-law's house) "I'm Ashkenazi so I won't eat rice." I just want to say to him "So, what's your excuse for driving home?" (Of course his excuse is that he's Conservative ... another issue)

BZ said...

I pity the fuul who doesn't like fava beans!

Mar Gavriel said...

BZ,

Here's the obligatory *groan*.

lauren said...

I've kept kosher for every Passover of my life, but I still don't quite understand the laws. If leavened things can be kosher, then what is the point? If the point is to remember that the fleeing Jews didn't have time to let their bread leaven, then why is brisket, which takes hours to cook, considered kosher? Why are unleavened crackers considered unkosher, when leavened muffins with "passover flour" are okay? What the hell is "Passover flour" anyway that makes it grain-less and kosher? What is in Matzah that magically has no grain in it? Any insight would be greatly appreciated, as my family continues to debate this every year.

elf said...

I agree that there is something ironic about Passover observance today. We say that we are eating matsah to commemorate the fact that the Israelites left Egypt in haste with no time for their dough to rise, yet we spend weeks preparing for the holiday, cleaning every nook and cranny of the house and cooking elaborate meals. What's more, we grind the matsah that we've "hurriedly" baked into matsah meal and then use it to prepare cakes, cookies, and even "breads."

From a halakhic standpoint, your questions are easy to answer, but that's because halakhah often plays funny tricks on itself. (Naomi Chana has a great post about that here.) Grains of the five forbidden species are kosher for Passover as long as they're baked into matsah within 18 minutes of being combined with water. After that, you can do whatever you want with the matsah, including grinding it into matsah meal or "cake meal" and using it in cooking and baking.

When I get frustrated with the seeming ridiculousness of it all, I find that it helps to remind myself of the brilliant Jewish housewives of yesteryear who turned the ancient rules on their heads to create such wonderful dishes as matsah ball soup. (Necessity is the mother of invention.) It also helps if you believe that sometimes tradition is a value in itself. But I guess that's subjective...

elf said...

I should probably add that some people do not eat matsah that has come into contact with liquid out of concern that there may be pockets of unbaked flour that could become leavened. (If you ever hear that someone "doesn't eat gebrochts", that's what it means.) This custom rules out any use of matsah meal or cake meal, but potato flour is still fair game.

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