Thursday, April 21, 2016

Corn, Rice, Beans on Passover? -- new ruling from Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards

This is the note I sent to my congregation....

As we approach Passover, I wanted to offer a few thoughts about an opinion published by Conservative Judaism's Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards that you might have seen earlier this year.
 It has gotten a fair amount of news coverage (see, for example,   Our rabbinic intern, Philip Gibbs, who is the secretary of the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, taught about this opinion this past shabbat.  Here is my summary of the issue.  

The background: 
  • According to Jewish law, Jews should abstain from hametz (leavened products) on Passover. According to Jewish law, the only substances that can be hametz are wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt.  Thus, a product that has absolutely no wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt content cannot be hametz.
  • Ashkenazic Jews (Jews from Eastern and Central Europe) have had the practice for several hundred years to also abstain from other foods on Passover, like corn, rice, and beans and other legumes.  (Collectively, these additional foods are called kitniyot.)  Several reasons have been suggested for this practice, including that it is possible to make flour out of these substances and that they could have been stored together with hametz or inadvertently mixed with hametz.  These foods, however, have remained in a separate category from hametz.  (Whereas hametz is actually forbidden according to Jewish law, kitniyot are merely customarily not eaten by Ashkenazic Jews.)   In general, Sefardic and Mizrahi Jews (Jews who trace their ancestry from Spain, the Mediterranean region, and the Arab world) have not abstained from eating kitniyot on Passover.
  • More than 20 years ago, Masorti (Conservative) Judaism in Israel went on record declaring that Ashkenazic Jews need not abstain from eatingkitniyot anymore, in the interests of the unity of the Jewish community, and in light of the fact that the original reasons for abstaining from eating kitniyotwere questionable.  (The author of this opinion was Rabbi David Golinkin, who visited our community last year; see
  • This new opinion of the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards (2016) essentially reiterates Rabbi Golinkin's opinion:  Ashkenazic Jews who want to follow the Sefardic practice of eating kitniyot on Passover should feel free to do so.  Ashkenazic Jews who want to continue to abstain from kitniyot on Passover are welcome to do so.


Questions that may be on your mind

What does Rabbi Scheinberg think about this ruling?

People who would like to follow this ruling should feel free to do so. (In fact, I have been telling this to people for many years, since the publication of Rabbi Golinkin's opinion about
kitniyot.)   I see this as a very individual decision that will be right for some people and not right for other people -- but there is no question that in my opinion, this decision is consistent with Jewish law and practice as understood in Conservative Judaism.

How will our synagogue policies change?

We do not plan for our synagogue policies to change. Currently, we do not serve
kitniyot at synagogue functions on Passover, and we will continue not to serve kitniyotat our synagogue, as there are many people from our synagogue (including Rabbi Scheinberg) who will continue to refrain from eating them.

If I want to start eating kitniyot on Passover, how can I go about this?

People who want to eat kitniyot on Passover according to the guidelines of the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards will be eating unprocessed corn (i.e., fresh corn on the cob), rice, and fresh or dried beans.  Eating canned or other processed versions of these foods is not recommended because they can include actual hametz.  

There are increasing numbers of products available for sale in the United States that are labeled "Kosher for Passover for those who eat kitniyot."  People who would like to follow these new guidelines should feel welcome to eat products that are so labeled.  (People who want to adhere to the traditional abstention from kitniyot will not eat products that are labeled 'kosher for Passover for those who eat kitniyot.")

Below is the section from the responsum of the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards which gives the practical guidelines. Click here to read the entire responsum:

In order to bring down the cost of making Pesah and support the healthier diet that is now becoming more common, and given the inapplicability today of the primary concerns that seem to have led to the custom of prohibiting kitniyot, and further, given our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions, more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us, we are prepared to rely on the fundamental observance recorded in the Talmud and codes and permit the eating of kitniyot on Pesah.

Some Details of This Psak:
1) Fresh corn on the cob and fresh beans (like lima beans in their pods) may be purchased before and during Pesah, that is, treated like any other fresh vegetable.

2) Dried kitniyot (legumes, rice and corn) can be purchased bagged or in boxes and then sifted or sorted before Pesah. These should ideally not be purchased in bulk from bins because of the concern that the bin might previously have been used for hametz, and a few grains of hametz might be mixed in. In any case, one should inspect these before Pesah and discard any pieces of hametz. If one did not inspect the rice or dried beans before Pesah, one should remove pieces of hametz found in the package on Pesah, discarding those, and the kitniyot themselves remain permissible. [Note from Rabbi Scheinberg: enriched white rice can contain actual hametz. includes a list of rice products that are certified kosher for people who eat kitniyot.]

3) Kitniyot in cans may only be purchased with Pesah certification since the canning process has certain related hametz concerns, and may be purchased on Pesah.

4) Frozen raw kitniyot (corn, edamame [soy beans], etc.): One may purchase bags of frozen non-hekhshered kitniyot before Pesah provided that one can either absolutely determine that no shared equipment was used or one is careful to inspect the contents before Pesah and discard any pieces of חמץ (hametz). Even if one did not inspect the vegetables before Pesah, if one can remove pieces of חמץ (hametz) found in the package on Pesah, the vegetables themselves are permissible.

5) Processed foods, including tofu, although containing no listed hametz, continue to require Pesah certification due to the possibility of admixtures of hametz during production.

6) Even those who continue to observe the Ashkenazic custom of eschewing kitniyot during Pesah may eat from Pesah dishes, utensils and cooking vessels that have come into contact with kitniyot and may consume kitniyot derivatives like oil (מי קטניות).

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Goats and Cats, Sticks and Dogs, Angels and God: Finishing the Seder with Had Gadya

Some find it surprising that at the Passover Seder, we discuss weighty themes of slavery and freedom and redemption, but the culmination, the grand finale of the entire seder, is Had Gadya - basically the Jewish version of “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly.”
In fact, there has been a lot of confusion in Jewish tradition about how this folk song for children managed to work its way into the Haggadah, such that it is now sung in virtually every Jewish community around the world:  “My father bought a little goat for two gold coins.  Then came a cat that ate the goat - that my father bought for two gold coins.  Then came a dog and bit the cat - that ate the goat - that my father bought for two gold coins.  Then came a stick - and beat the dog - that bit the cat......” etc. etc.  And the song concludes, ten verses later:  “And then came God, the Holy Blessed One, and slaughtered the Angel of Death - who slaughtered the butcher who slaughtered the ox that drank the water that put out the fire that burnt the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat that my father bought for two gold coins.”
This is, of course, very inspiring religious material.
I was once teaching the song to second graders in our Learning Center, and one girl said, “Did this really happen?  I mean, how can a cat eat a goat?”
A wide array of commentaries in our tradition endeavor to explain exactly what this passage is doing in the Passover seder at all.  This is quite a conundrum, considering that the song seems to have nothing to do with Passover, and almost nothing to do with Judaism, except for the appearance of God at the very end.
Some people choose to understand Had Gadya theologically.  They say that the point of the song is that at the end, God slaughters the Angel of Death.  If God is truly all-powerful, then God can triumph even over death and bring the world into the era of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead.
Others interpret Had Gadya as an extensive allegory for the history of the Jewish people.  The Jewish people, of course, are the goat, and some say that the 2 gold coins are the two tablets of the ten commandments, given by God to the Jewish people to solidify our relationship.  But over and over, the Jewish people are oppressed and persecuted and burned and extinguished and slaughtered, just as happens in the song.  And in fact, each stage of the song can be regarded as a different stage in the history of Jewish persecution.  The cat represents Assyria; the dog is Babylonia; the stick is Persia, and so on and so on.  But ultimately God rescues us and saves us from our oppressors.
Another explanation was presented by the eminent Israeli Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.  He remembers in his childhood trying to make sense of this song, concluding that this is really a song about vengeance.  The cat eats the goat - but then the dog bites the cat.  So, he presumed, the dog and the goat are friends.  They’re on the same team.  The dog saw that the goat was getting eaten, and came to its aid to exercise some vengeance against the cat.
But then the stick comes and beats the dog.  So presumably the stick is friends with the cat, and the stick is angry at the dog for biting the cat.  But then there’s another reprisal: next we have the fire, burning the stick, so the fire seems to be defending the dog for his vigilante action, and so on and so on… until things get so out of hand that God has to step in.
The song, then, is a classic demonstration of how a cycle of violence can so easily and quickly spiral out of control.  What was once a small, local conflict between the cat and the goat has now involved, and destroyed, two other animals, three objects, one person, and one angel, and God has to step in and keep the peace.
But all these efforts don’t bring the goat back to life, nor do they necessarily function to deter the cat, or anyone else, from eating other goats in the future.  The song reminds us that revenge is, plain and simple, a failed strategy most of the time.
It shouldn’t surprise us that there are at least three prominent Israeli poets and songwriters who have played with the imagery of Had Gadya as a way of describing the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, which often times looks like this kind of pointless cycle of violence and revenge (though clearly there is a difference between terrorists who target civilian populations, and military actions that target only known perpetrators and go through extraordinary measures to limit civilian casualties). (See poems and songs by Yehuda Amichai (Hebrew, English) Chava Alberstein (Hebrew, English, and video), and Levin Kipnis (who pictures a utopian version of Chad Gadya in which the animals cooperate rather than fighting with each other; Hebrew, video)  

Had Gadya reminds us that no matter who is more at fault, the cycle of revenge is likely to continue until someone breaks the cycle. And the longer it takes to realize this, the more people die.
I wish Had Gadya or some other Jewish text were able to present precise guidelines for us, or for Israel today, for how to cope with the terrorism and the hatred.  But perhaps it’s not in the nature of religious texts to provide specific policy guidelines.  Religious texts are more likely to be successful at planting values within us, and helping us to balance those values against each other.  May the values presented in the Passover Seder, and in Had Gadya, help us and others to move our world in the direction of peace.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Seder Trivia -- 2016 / 5776 edition

At our synagogue's congregational seders for the last few years, we have played the following game:  I have collected unusual Pesach stories, and shared three such stories with the community:  two true stories, and one fictional story.  Participants then have to guess which two stories are true and which one is false.   (If you listen to Wait, wait, don't tell me, you get the idea, except that only one story is false.)

You can find previous years' stories here,  here, here, here and here.


The stories from our 2015/5775 seder are below.  Three unusual Pesach stories..... 2 are true, and one is fictional.  Can you figure out which story is not true?   (The answer is at the bottom.)


With each passing year, the number of Kosher for Passover products continues to grow.  In 2015, Israel's Ben and Jerry's factory, which has been selling kosher for Passover ice cream in Israel for several years (sadly, not available in the US), has announced a new flavor - Haroset ice cream, made with apples and nuts and wine. (see photo)  But believe it or not, this is NOT the most unusual kosher for Passover product ever offered for sale.

In 2013, British kosher food manufacturer Hoffman’s began to sell …… sealed jars of …...certified kosher for Passover…..  salt water.  Offered for sale for £0.99 for a liter -- which turns out to be about $1.50 for a quart.

Yes, salt water is a seder necessity. And I guess it is a convenience to have ready-made salt water so you don't need to go through the onerous difficulty of pouring the water, pouring the salt, and stirring them together.

The question remains, though: for the last several hundred years, busy Passover Seder hosts trying to get their 5-year-old kids to leave them alone in those crucial final hours before the Seder have been able to tell their kids, "Let me give you a very important job!  You can help by making the salt water!”  And thus these Seder hosts earned an additional five minutes of peace and quiet.    What will they do, if Kosher for Passover bottled salt water catches on?

Irving Berlin, one of the greatest composers of American standards, was Jewish, of course -- actually, he was descended from a long line of rabbis and cantors. He grew up among the melodies of the Jewish community.  And one prominent American Jewish musicologist and composer, Jack Gottlieb, has written that you can find Jewish melodies hidden in many of Irving Berlin’s best known songs.

For example:  for many centuries children would sing the 4 Questions at the Passover Seder to a melody that sounds like

mah nishtanah line.png
(This was the Mah Nishtanah melody that was sung by everyone in the Ashkenazic Jewish world, before the upbeat Israeli melody that people sing today became popular in the 1950’s.)

According to Jack Gottlieb, the great composer Irving Berlin incorporated this melody into one of his best-known songs, which is:

no business like show business.png
Yes, eminent musicologist Jack Gottlieb believed that the classic Irving Berlin song “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was inspired by the old melody of Mah Nishtanah.

Gottlieb asserted only a musical link between these two melodies - not a conceptual link between the lyrics of the two songs.  But we at USH notice that it is very easy to modify ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business” to make it a good summary of the Four Questions. Who knows, maybe THIS was the original version of Irving Berlin’s classic:
There's no dinner like the Seder dinner,
like no dinner I know,
Why are we all dipping and reclining?
Why maror, but bread we don't allow?

(c )
What do the wild cats of ancient Assyria have to do with the Passover seder?

As is well known to readers of the Bible and those with even a passing familiarity with the archaeology of the Middle East, the ancient city of Nineveh (in what today is northern Iraq) was infested with large wildcats, which were the primary hazard for the residents of Nineveh.  The kings of Assyria, who had their palaces in Nineveh, usually didn’t have to worry about the wildcats because they lived in palaces with high walls.  However, the nomadic shepherds and goatherds on the outskirts of Nineveh had to contend regularly with the wildcats.

But what does this have to do with the Passover Seder?  

Well, this year, scholars at the British Museum in London published a new translation of an Aramaic clay tablet that had been part of the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh.  Apparently, a poor goatherd in the Nineveh area was applying to King Ashurbanipal for financial assistance.  The King had apparently asked this goatherd for a detailed inventory of all his animals, how they were acquired, their appraised value, and how and when they ceased being part of his inventory.   

There was one line in this otherwise prosaic clay tablet that caught the eye of one of the scholars:   “ve-ata shunra de-achal le-gadya dizvan aba bi-trei zuzei.” “Then a cat came, and it ate the goat that my father had bought for two zuzim.”

Dr. Efraim Goldberger of the British Museum commented, “While it cannot be conclusively proven that the Passover song “Chad Gadya” is based on a true story, this tablet makes it more plausible than we had previously thought.”



A is true (See

B is true (see this book I am not passing judgment on whether there really was a relationship between these songs, but Jack Gottlieb does assert this in his book.)

C is false. (Had Gadya was definitely not written in ancient Assyria! And no, Nineveh was not known for its wildcats....and no, no one thinks that Had Gadya is based on a true story.... )

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Marshmallows, Trees, and learning how to wait: Thoughts for Tu Bishvat

One of the most famous experiments in child psychology was conducted by Walter Mischel.  He would give preschool-age children a marshmallow, and then a tantalizing dilemma:  the child could eat the marshmallow now -- or, if the child succeeded in waiting for several minutes, the child would receive two marshmallows.

This “marshmallow experiment,” as it came to be known, examines one of the most essential life skills:  delay of gratification.  Mischel and his team found that most of the young children were unable to delay their gratification; some ate the marshmallow immediately, and others made an effort but could not wait for more than a couple of minutes.  However, approximately 30% of the children were able to develop strategies that helped them to delay their gratification for the entire fifteen minutes.  Some children even blocked the marshmallow from their view so they could more easily focus on other things. 
This experiment was first conducted in the 1960’s, and Mischel and his team followed up on the children, discovering that those who had developed the skill of waiting, and delaying gratification, were more likely to have high academic achievement and professional achievement, and less likely to have issues with substance abuse, than students who were unable to wait.
Delaying gratification is a central skill for living a productive and fulfilling life.  But it is remarkable to me that we encourage young children to develop their skills of delay of gratification, while on a societal level, adults are not necessarily as adept at this skill.  There is hardly a single political issue today which is not in some way related to the delay of gratification.  For example, we face the choice whether or not to increase the national debt, knowing that when we do, it’s the next generation that will pay the interest.  Or we face the choice to invest now in renewable energy sources, knowing that if we don’t, our current energy sources may prove to be insufficient.
One of the very first stories in the Torah is interpreted in Jewish mystical literature as a story about delay of gratification.  I’m speaking of the story of Adam and Eve, and that famous tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The 16th century mystic writer Mordechai ha-Kohen of Tzefat wrote that we have been mis-interpreting this story for so many centuries.  He wrote that Adam and Eve’s sin was not so much in EATING from the Tree of Knowledge, but in doing so TOO EARLY. 
According to the Torah, Adam and Eve were created on a Friday - the sixth day of creation - immediately before Shabbat.  According to the Midrash, it was at about 3pm on that Friday afternoon that God issued the commandment not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
This is where Rabbi Mordechai ha-Kohen adds his own theory:  God was saving that fruit to be a special treat for Adam and Eve for Shabbat.  If they had merely waited three more hours, God would have given them the fruit, and told them to enjoy!  But they were unable to wait.  As a result, God enacted a law in the Torah, found in the book of Leviticus (19:3):  “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden.  Three years it shall be forbidden to you, not to be eaten."  Three years of mandatory waiting, corresponding to the three hours that Adam and Eve couldn’t wait -- to give us all adequate practice in waiting.
Rabbi Mordechai ha-Kohen asserts that one of the most important things that the Torah can teach us is the importance of waiting, of thoughtfully delaying gratification so we can enjoy a better world later on.
This month, we celebrate the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees.  Certainly, from the mere fact that the Jewish calendar includes a Jewish holiday that’s all about trees, we get a sense of the importance of environmental concern in our tradition.  But when we look closely at the original meaning and purpose of Tu Bishvat, we see that it is connected to the value of delay of gratification.  The Mishnah tells us that the 15th day of the month of Shevat is “Rosh HaShanah La-Ilanot,”  “the new year for trees,” meaning that all trees are considered to be a day older on Tu Bishvat.  In Israel, this holiday approximately marks the time when the sap is beginning to flow through the trees again after the winter, and when first flowers of spring can be seen on some early-blooming trees like the almond tree.  In the same way that all race horses are considered to be a year older on January 1 every year, all trees are considered to be a year older on Tu Bishvat.

But why is it so important to know how old a tree is?  It’s because of that law from the book of Leviticus (19:3), mentioned above, that specifies that for the first three years of a tree’s life, its fruit cannot be eaten.  This law is God’s effort to teach us how to wait, and to remind us that the most important yields of our efforts are not the yields that come immediately, but those that come later. 

Tu Bishvat serves as our reminder that it’s a mistake to make our decisions based only on their short-term impact.  In fact, we ought to have such a long time-horizon that we routinely consider the impact of our actions upon future generations, in addition to our own generation.

The most famous Tu Bishvat story of all is the Talmud’s story of Honi Ha-Me’agel, Honi the Circle-drawer, who was a miracle-worker in the Land of Israel in the 1st-century.  According to the story, once Honi was walking along the road and saw an old man planting a tree.  This would have been surprising enough:  Why is an old man planting a tree, rather than having one of his relatives do it for him?  As Honi got closer, he saw something even more surprising:  this man was planting a carob tree.  And a carob tree, as every ancient Israelite would have known,
doesn’t yield edible fruit until at least 70 years after it has been planted.  Could this man truly believe that he would survive to see the fruits of his labors?
Honi called out to him:  “At your age, why are you planting a carob tree?” 
The old man responded:  “When I was born, I found a world that was full of carob trees, which my ancestors had planted for me.  Even though I know I will not survive to see the fruit of this tree, I plant this tree for the sake of my descendants, so that they will be able to know the blessings that I have known in my life.”
When we have decisions to make, which could affect future generations, may we keep the lessons of Tu Bishvat in mind and plant not for our own sake, but for the sake of our descendants.