Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

Missing the Point of Holidays: Chametz and Kitniyot on Passover & Torah and Bikkurim on Shavuot by Gidon Rothstein

April 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Holidays, New Posts

Mistakes are sometimes self-contained, so that they affect nothing other than the issue they address.  Sometimes, though, mistakes—or even just slight misrepresentations of the truth—feed on themselves and end up overshadowing or obscuring important other truths.  Pesach and Shavuot, for me personally, are among the times when the latter is true, when our attachment to either mistaken or ancillary aspects of the holiday cause us to miss more significant points God wanted us to catch. 

I review these examples here for their own sake, to remind us of the more significant points about those holidays I think we have been missing, but also in the hopes that seeing these will spark a reconsideration of whether we do that to other parts of the religion as well (Full disclosure: I have been doing this for some time, much of it captured in my posts at, 23 so far, with 4 more to go, trying to define the Mission of Orthodoxy).

Within the modern observance of Pesach, there are many examples of stressing the tafel over the ikkar, the subordinate over the primary, but I will focus on kitniyot. A valid custom in its context, I this year came across a statement that made it clear that the custom has led to serious students of Torah to misapprehend the nature of the Torah’s interest in our avoiding hametz.  To see how, we need to briefly review some of the issues around the custom itself.

Kitniyot—The Custom and Its Ramifications

Kitniyot, let us recall, are those foods—rice, legumes, corn—that Ashkenazic Jews around the secular year 1200 started to refrain from using on Pesach, either out of fear that actual grains would be mixed in with these kitniyot, or out of fear over confusion of what was or was not hametz.  The custom has come to include in it mixtures of kitniyot and even mixtures in which the incorporated material is what is called mei kitniyot, juices made from the original kitniyot. There are, for a contemporary example, many products whose only Pesach problem is that they contain high fructose corn syrup, which contains little if any actual corn.

While there may be arguments for why Ashkenazic Jews need no longer follow that custom even in America, some of which I reviewed in classes I have given for the Webyeshiva (archived at, there are stronger ones for that being true in Israel. As some have argued, Israel has long been ruled by Sephardic custom, in particular that of R. Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch.  For one example, R. Ovadya Yosef has often rejected other versions of Sephardic practice in favor of Shulchan Aruch’s, arguing that Israel is atra de-maran, is the place of our teacher (R. Karo), and that his rulings are therefore authoritative.

R. Ovadya always explicitly exempts Ashkenazim from that (since we are יוצאים ביד רמ”א, followers of Rema), but in the case of customs that is less compelling, since custom is so significantly tied to place.  Further, on a purely practical level, many kosher for Passover products in Israel contain kitniyot, and many Ashkenazim forget to check that the symbol says that something is free of such kitniyot.

My concern here, however, is with how the custom changes the experience of Pesach from what the Torah and halachah envisioned, both practically and ideologically. Practically, Ashkenazic Jews are forced to change their purchasing patterns to a much greater extent than the original halachah required.  Just the example of high fructose corn syrup would show how many products we buy in special forms, at extra cost, that without this custom could be permitted in their usual forms.  As I go through my cabinets each year, noticing the ketchups, dressings, and drinks that I could have in their ordinary form but for this custom, I wonder at how we have changed the experience of Pesach from what God ordained.

The Emotions of Eating Hametz-Like Foods 

That change extends to our conceptualization of the holiday as well.  I was particularly struck, this year, by reports of two different important Israeli rabbis, noted talmidei hachamim each (I leave out their names since I plan to vigorously critique their stance), who made known their feeling that Jews should have an emotional inability, an halachic revulsion, for eating foods that are too similar to hametz.  For them, the various potato starch cereals and pizzas, many of which have reached a perfectly acceptable level of edibility, are too close to the real thing; the experience of Pesach, they argue, is not to avoid the foods the Torah told us to, but to avoid that type of food experience.

This is actually a broader general issue in halachah, trying to figure out when the Torah means to prohibit a certain act or that type of act.  Halachah has long allowed various technical ways to circumvent the prohibition against taking interest on loans, for example, which assumes the Torah only prohibited specific acts, not type of acts.  Yet I assume we would disapprove of using such fictions to allow us to charge burdensome interest to a poor person who needs the money to tide him over until times get better.

Much as I grant that many times there is a spirit to a commandment that extends beyond the narrow confines of its defined halachah, I see reasons to assume that that is not true of hametz.  First, various extensions of hametz were discussed by the Torah and Hazal without any implication that obviously it should be prohibited for looking too much like hametz.  Mixtures of hametz, for example, are significantly less prohibited than pure hametz, as are cases where the hametz has been partially ruined. 

More than that, though, is the Gemara’s approach to rice.  While rice was seen as being extremely close to the other five grains in how it is used and how it is experienced—so close that the bracha for it is mezonot, just like the other five grains—the Gemar has no issue with using it on Pesach.  (The same is true of tradition’s reaction to potatoes).  

Apparently, the Gemara and tradition understood the Torah to prohibit hametz primarily in its purest form. Lesser forms are still prohibited, at whatever level, as extensions of the original hametz, not independently problematic items.  Once we move out of the realm of hametz, there would seem no reason to be alert to extending the experience. 

Hametz—Primarily an Eating Experience Prohibition? 

True, we have an obligation to follow the custom that did extend the prohibition, but no more than the custom applied itself to.  To use that custom as the basis for declaring a new principle, an opposition to anything that gives the feeling of eating hametz seems to me not just a mistake in Pesach terms, but in religious terms in general.  It assumes without evidence from the Torah, the Oral Law, and even the custom itself that the Torah was concerned with a certain eating experience. Committed as I am to trying to understand halachah’s reason for various commandments, I also think we need to be alert to overexplaining, or to offering explanations that make a great deal of sense but do not match the halachic evidence.

 What if, for example, the point of the prohibition of hametz was merely to shift our usual use of the five central grains, to force us, in using those grains, to pay careful attention to the process, to be assiduous about making that process go as quickly as possible? I could imagine, for example, that this could have been seen by the Torah as a reminder of the alacrity we should bring to our relationship with God. If so, the point of the prohibition would be accomplished even just by obligating us to eat matzah (at least on the first night, but likely as a positive value the rest of the holiday) and avoiding hametz foods. 

Finding and accepting taamei mitsvot, reasons for the commandments, is a delicate matter, carrying with it the danger that we will not just mistake the point of a practice, but that we will then build castles in the air of that mistake.  Kitniyot on Pesach offers one example of such a danger.

The Substitute Reason Eclipsing the Real One: The Case of Shavuot

 So does the declaration of Shavuot as the holiday of the Giving of the Torah.  As Magen Avraham pointed out hundreds of years ago, there are several problems with the liturgy (and Torah reading)’s connecting the holiday to Sinai.  Interestingly, the Mishnah does not mention reading of the Revelation at Sinai on Shavuot; it comes up as an אחרים אומרים, a second opinion, in the Gemara, Megillah 31a, which goes on to say that with two days of the holiday in Exile, we can read both selections. 

 Magen Avraham’s problem was that the Gemara’s identification of the sixth of Sivan with the day of Matan Torah adopts a view about the laws of Niddah that is at odds with our general practice. (He might also have noted that in times when we established the calendar by eyewitness testimony, the holiday could happen on the 5th, 6th, or 7th of Sivan).   Magen Avraham suggests that our practice of those laws is actually a voluntary stringency, so that the Torah really was given on the sixth.  He may be right, but it is not the tenor of how we communicate those laws in their context—the waiting period of 3 full days is generally assumed to be the basic law, not a voluntary stringency. 

Further, and perhaps more important, the Torah itself never connects the event to the holiday. Rather—and it is the widespread forgetting of this aspect of the holiday that most bothers me—the Torah has its own reason for the holiday of Shavuot.  On Pesach, we offer the Omer, a grain offering that permits us to use the produce of the new harvest. In the Temple itself, we did not use that new produce until after offering the שתי הלחם, the two breads, on Shavuot, which also kicks off the bringing of bikkurim, first fruits.

We have not brought bikkurim in thousands of years, but the Mishnayot that describe the process make clear that this was a ceremony of huge importance. Instead of simply going as individuals to make their offering (as they would with other personal contributions to God and the Temple), people made sure to gather in groups and go to Jerusalem together, in parades, with music playing.  The arrival season in Jerusalem was also different than usual, the citizens of the city repeatedly stopping their work to welcome the pilgrims.

 At the Temple itself, the Torah prescribed a ritual conversation between the donating Jew and the receiving priest, whose content forms the backbone of our telling of the story of the Exodus on Pesach night.  Seven weeks after that night, in other words, we have a holiday whose central ceremony repeated much of the same content.  The bringing of bikkurim, too, was supposed to lead us to reminisce about the Exodus.

 Shavuot and Bikkurim as the Culmination of the Exodus

The explanation for why lies in the verse we do not repeat Seder night, ויביאנו אל המקום הזה, ויתן לנו את הארץ הזאת, ארץ זבת חלב ודבש, And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing in milk and honey. The bikkurim ceremony, in other words, was the final confirmation that the promises of the Exodus had been fulfilled: not only did we leave Egypt, not only did we become God’s people, tasked with making God’s Presence known in the world by our observance of Torah and mitsvot, but we were given the land we were promised, a land that can and does support us when we are deserving of such bounty.

The holiday of Shavuot thus represents a culmination of Pesach (the reason the Mishnah refers to it as עצרת, a holdover) in at least two ways.  In the experience of new grain, Pesach was a holiday in which we first began using that grain in our own lives; seven weeks later we are ready to use that new grain in our Temple lives.  Secondly, Pesach was the holiday of the Exodus itself, Shavuot of the evidence of the completion of that Exodus in its fullest form—the establishment of a Temple, and a people bringing their produce to that Temple in celebration of God’s bounty in their lives.

Phrasing it that way also shows us why it had to change with the loss of that Temple: to continue to focus the holiday on the שתי הלחם, on the communal peace-offering we used to give, on the beginning of bikkurim season, would likely have been too painful to sustain throughout this long exile. 

Too, the focus on the Giving of the Torah is not completely different, since it focuses on a parallel way in which the Exodus was completed on Shavuot: God secured our physical and cultural freedom on Pesach and, on Shavuot, gave us the culture and way of life that would insure our true freedom, the freedom of Torah study and worship of God, into the future.  My problem, then, is not with why or how it came to be that we focus more on Shavuot as the holiday of the Giving of the Torah so much as its contributing to our losing sight of the fuller and more explicit message of the holiday.

In both instances, and in many others, the messages sent by Jewish tradition are both understandable and laudable but carry with them the danger of obscuring ideas that are both more central and more explicit in God’s communications of how we should structure our lives and our worship of Him.  Part of the message of Shavuot this year, I hope, will be a renewed awareness of the Torah as God gave it to us, the intentions that God put into that Torah, and a commitment to keeping it fully, with ikkar and tafel properly delineated, and each given the appropriate type of attention.

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