Kosher for Passover

The Whys of What's Acceptable

It made sense to me as a kid that I couldn't eat bread during Passover, the holiday that marks the Jews' escape from the Pharaoh's persecution in ancient Egypt. I knew that as the Jewish people were forced to flee quickly, they snatched their as-yet-unleavened bread from its proofing places and ate the resulting flat crackers on the run. And I understood that in commemoration of the escape, Jews today ate matzoh, the epitome of the flat cracker, instead of anything risen with baking powder, soda, or yeast.

But I could never reason why many Jews considered it a sin to eat a host of other foods on Passover, like chocolate bars and beer. Surely if cocoa beans existed in ancient Egypt, Jews wouldn't have refused them. It's not that I rejected the edifying value of ritual abstinence, but some specific prohibitions made no logical sense to me. Passover, after all, is "the Festival of Unleavened Bread." Chocolate doesn't toast or rise.

I didn't want to stumble through incoherent explanations about my holiday diet to friends again this year, so I began to explore the wealth of Jewish scholarship about Passover food. Here's a brief synopsis of my findings:

The prohibition against "leavened foods," as explained by the story of Exodus, is misleading. According to Rabbi Singer of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in New York, the world's largest kosher certifying agency, the initial prohibition against food for Passover applied to five basic "Biblical" grains -- wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oat -- that could leaven, but not to the leavening agent itself. European (Askenazi) Jews later added to this list of staples rice, corn, millet, buckwheat, and legumes (peas and beans), because each of these staple foods were ground into use as some version of flour. Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, editor of Kashrus Kurrents, explains more precisely that the ban on kitniyos (legumes) is to prevent any possible public confusion between their flour and that which comes from grains. See, flour is the medium on which yeast acts, so it is actually the idea of flour, broadly conceived, that is anathema to Jews. Taken to the logical extreme, all derivatives of these prohibited ingredients should be banned by modern Jews. Corn syrup, found in soft drinks and candy, is one example of a particularly ubiquitous by-product. Any alcohol made from grain is also banned. It seems, then, that Jews do not avoid leavening agents, as the story of Exodus would suggest at first glance, nor do they ban grains just for grains' sake. Rather, they are concerned about grains' potential for leavening.

But that is no simple matter. I examined an old box of matzo meal, shoved behind reserves of tomato paste and baking chocolate. It lists the following as ingredients: flour and water. Flour? Again, I was confused. How could this flour differ from that of my favorite saltines? What makes it, but not the stuff in Ritz crackers, pass rabbinical muster?

Strict supervision. According to Rabbi Baruch Meir Clein of the Blue Ribbon Kosher certifying agency and "Kosher Korner" columnist for Food Distribution Magazine, the flour that gets used for matzoh has been supervised from the time of harvest until baking to ensure that its kernels have not prematurely sprouted and that they do not come into contact with any water before baking begins. Water may induce even minimal leavening. Once the grain is ground into flour and it gets wet, yeast that's naturally present in the air settles in for rapid fermentation. Eighteen minutes is the maximum time allowed for flour and any amount of water to combine before the matzoh must be completely baked. This supervised restriction guarantees that the flour in the matzoh never gets a chance to rise even an eensy-teensy bit. No such promise exists for other kinds of wafers or flat breads.

With this information, Jewish customs that first appeared nonsensical to me now seem so tightly reasoned as to be compelling. I finally understand how some wine can be kosher for Passover, since fermentation per se is not prohibited on this holiday, and that few wines may contain legumes in small amount and, hence, are not certifiable. I now see why some Jews abstain from more curiously "problematic" food -- for instance, dried fruits, which are processed with an anti-clumping oil that might come from prohibited foods, and tuna packed in vegetable oil, which might contain some soybean.

And I still don't know the half of it. I guess, to friends who might ask why this holiday is different from every other, I'd probably just offer a serving of my mom's matzo ball soup. It may not itself clarify our complicated food rituals, but it will at least give them a taste of what tempts us to observe. -- Ronna N. Welsh

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