by Rabbi Sybil A. Sheridan
Passover is coming and with it the annual anxiety over what to eat – or, more exactly, what not to eat.
The Bible is clear. No ‘leaven.’ But what is leaven? It is usually defined as fermented grain – specifically, fermented of the five species of grain that grow in the land of Israel. These are: wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt. So wine (fermented grape) is allowed but whiskey (fermented rye) is not. Matzah, which can be made of wheat or rye or spelt baked quickly so it does not ferment and therefore does not rise when baking, is our staple food for the week; but cake, if made from the same ingredients, but requiring the fermentation process to make it rise is strictly forbidden.
So far, so reasonably clear. We eat matzah; we eat cake made from potato flour or matzah meal, risen with an unhealthy lot of eggs, we drink wine, port and brandy and other fruit concoctions.
But then we get to the complicated bit. Ashkenazi communities (those that settled in Germany and parts north and east from there) developed other rules. No rice, no peas, beans or other pulses were allowed, kitniyot they are called in Hebrew. The reason for this is hard to fathom, as they are not grains. Some claim it is because they used to be stored in old flour sacks and so would have been coated in the forbidden stuff. Others reckon it is because if you grind pulses, they look exactly like wheat flour and so could easily be confused. Either way, the tradition is centuries old and as much part of the Seder tradition as the Exodus itself. However, if you are Sephardi (coming from Babylonia to Spain and then all parts west and south of there), you do not follow these traditions – and indeed, rice remains the staple (once carefully checked there are no hidden wheat grains among the seeds,) in such communities as those in India and Pakistan.
So, what happens in a community like ours, where we have a mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardi? Usually, where there is such a ‘mixed marriage,’ the couple are expected to observe the most stringent partners set of practices, but not so in the case of Pesach. If an Ashkenazi woman marries a Sephardi man, she is expected to put her principles aside and cook him rice and beans, for heaven forbid that he suffer on Pesach! This suggests that the custom regarding kitniyot is not a law, or even a rule, – unless it is a rule made to be broken. The first Reform Synagogue in this country was just like a mixed marriage since the founding families came from both Sephardi and Ashkenazi backgrounds. The Reform Movement has continued the tradition and so will allow for kitniyot at a Seder, so long as there is sufficient food for those who observe the Ashkenazi traditions not to feel short-changed or uncomfortable. So for example, at our Seder at home, (we are a Sephardi family) we usually have fish, with potatoes, courgettes or a cucumber salad, any vegetable, possibly, but never peas – even though we could. However if we have vegetarian guests or if people offer to bring a salad, I have no hesitation in cooking up a nut roast with lentils, or having a bean salad on the table. I know the Ashkenazim will not be hungry.
So in short, these are the foods not to bring to a Seder:
Bread, biscuits and cake made from the 5 species of grain mentioned above. Do not use any standard flour, or baking powder of any kind. You shouldn’t eat couscous or polenta, semolina or pasta either.
These are the foods I consider a must have at a seder: Matzah, – of course – it’s a mitzvah – but also cakes made of potato flour, ground almonds or matzah meal, meringues and puddings with fruit; pavlovas and trifles made with stale pesach cake. Biscuits of all sorts using almonds and other ground nuts: cinammon balls, macaroons, etc. etc. etc. Soups and sauces can be thickened with potato flour or arrowroot. Be careful of the oil you use for cooking. Avoid vegetable oil, and corn oil, go for sunflower or olive oil instead. Go for wine vinegar rather than malt vinegar. Check out the ingredients in prepared sauces: mayonnaise, tomato ketchup, and the like – its best to get a kosher brand or make it yourself, if you can.
If you eat kitniyot then any pulse, peas beans or lentils is permissible as well as rice. Quinoia is all right. The ultra frum have declared it not kosher for Pesach but they are just being spoilsports. If you are coming to the communal Seder, and bringing along a salad, then dishes with kitniyot are quite acceptable, providing it is clear that they contains beans or peas, so those who do refrain from them can avoid them.
Of course the main protein sources are untouched by this. Meat, eggs, fish and cheese are fine – within the usual range of kashrut. However, I never go for kosher milk, butter, tea, coffee or jams. That is just a racket ensuring you are paying way over the odds for the security that no one with a ham sandwich in his breast pocket will have leant over your food and dropped crumbs in it. Firstly this is so unlikely to happen, secondly if it did happen, you would not be held responsible since it would not be your fault, thirdly, if it did indeed happen the proportion would be so tiny in comparison to the rest of the ingredients as to have no effect on the general kashrut.
But I am complicating things. The main thing is, enjoy your Seder and enjoy your food throughout the seven days of Pesach. It is a great time to experiment and to indulge… Make the most of it!