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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven


Why Some Don't Eat Rice On Pessah

By Shelomo Alfassa / Jewish Voice March 31, 2006

There are two things on Pessah we are required to do. One is to eat matsa, and the other is not to eat hamets (leaven). Hamets includes wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt, or any drinks made from their derivatives. This commandment originates in the Torah, "You shall safeguard the matsas…leaven may not be found in your homes...You must not eat anything leavened." (Bereshit 12:15-20). The Ashkenazi rabbis of Europe wanting to make sure no one in their communities transgressed this law, developed a gezeirah (protective fence) for this commandment.

They followed the guidance of the early Talmudic sages that said Moshe received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly (the rabbinical leaders). The men of the Great Assembly said three things, be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah.

These fences were put in place to protect the people from transgressing the laws-even accidentally. An example of making a fence around something is easily demonstrated by the parent who removes the knobs from their stove. Even though a child may not know how to turn on the burners, by removing the knobs, there is no chance the child can be burned.

During the days of Pessah, we do not eat any hamets, food that contains grains and has been subjected to even the slightest amount of moisture for a period of time prior to baking. No ordinary flour is permitted to be used. Generally speaking, most will only bake only with matsa meal or potato starch.

Vegetables can be eaten, including peas, beans and corn, all which are not classified as hamets but kitniyot. Rice is also in this category of acceptable fare. So where does the idea that rice and other kitniyot should not be eaten stem from? The origin for this protective fence goes back several hundred years when people were occasionally confusing products that were not banned for Pessah (such as corn and rice) with products that were banned for Pessah (such as wheat and barley). At the time, sacks that held hamets, were said to also be used for kitniyot.

Rabbi Moshe of Kouchi, a 13th century French rabbi ruled kitniyot can appear like hamets products. For example, it may be hard to distinguish between rice flour (kitniyot) and wheat flour (hamets). Wanting to protect their community from transgressing the prohibition of using hamets on Pessah, the rabbinate instituted a ban of anything which could remotely be confused with hamets. By outlawing these food products, this protective fence assured no one within their community would go against the Torah, even by accident.

It's important to reiterate that kitniyot such as rice, corn and legumes are not hamets, and they cannot "become" hamets. Maimonides writes that there is no hamets in kitniyot and even if rice was ground into flour, and it was to rise like leavened dough, it is permissible to eat it, as it is not hamets.

Increasingly, many new "kasher for Pessah" products are coming into the United States from Israel, but to the majority of American Jews (who are Ashkenazi), these products are not acceptable. It's important to note that products labeled "kasher for Pessah" are indeed kasher, but because of the minhag (custom) of the Ashkenazim, these products are not utilized. One example is halvah sold in the kasher section of the supermarket. It states "kasher for Pessah," however it contains corn syrup and therefore is not accepted under Ashkenazi custom. Certain other foods such as canned stuffed grape leaves (yaprak or dolma) are certified kasher for Pessah, nevertheless, these delicacies are stuffed with rice, and so are excluded by Ashkenazi families.

While it is commonly known that Sephardim eat rice during the holiday, not all do. It varies by country of origin, community, and family tradition. The Sephardim who do eat it, meticulously check the rice three times (usually spread out on a table) to assure that no other grains are among the rice.

Coca Cola uses corn syrup in their products throughout the year which is acceptable to all Jews. However, during Pessah the Ashkenazi community will not drink it because the corn syrup used as sweetener is kitniyot. In order to appeal to overall Jewish community, in most bottling plants, Coke replaces corn syrup with real sugar for the week prior to Pessah. The bottles made with sugar can be recognized by their unique yellow colored caps. The label will read "corn syrup" but the plant (which is under orthodox rabbinical supervision) adds only sugar to sweeten the drink for the eight days. The label isn't changed, because it is said to be too costly to replace it for such a short period of time.

Certain products which contain corn syrup such as ketchup, margarine, cream cheese, and even some canned tuna are not eaten by the Ashkenazi, while in the Sephardi community they are acceptable fare. Of course any kitniyot products which you may want to prepare on Pessah should have proper rabbinical supervision.

As Jews, we have many different customs, but first and foremost we are Jews, united by the Torah. Our customs may be different, but we celebrate Pessah for the same exact reason-the liberation from slavery. Even so, Pessah may be the holiday of Jewish independence from Egypt, but not from persecution in the world. Hopefully, this year Pessah will serve to remind us of our victories over our enemies in the past, and our victories to come in the future.


This essay is available for syndication


© Shelomo Alfassa