For most people, Passover means one thing: no bread. The reality is that the restrictions for Passover food go much deeper and vary depending upon your level of observance and to which Jewish religious group you belong. With words like kitniyot and gebrokts, confusion can abound. Here we'll clear things up and provide the origins of various Passover food traditions.
The Basics: No Leavening
The basic Passover food prohibition is anything "leavened," which Jews call chametz. What this means, according to the rabbis and tradition, is anything made with wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats that is mixed with water and left to rise for more than 18 minutes.
Throughout the year, Jews eat challah during their weekly Shabbat meals, and the challah must be made out of one of these five grains, which allow for the HaMotzi blessing over a meal, and Jews are forbidden to eat or own chametz during Passover. Instead, Jews consume matzah. Yeast and other leavening "agents," however, are not forbidden on Passover and are frequently used in Passover cooking.
Jews stop eating chametz late in the morning the day that Passover begins (in the evening, on the 14th of Nisan). Jews spend days, and sometimes weeks, cleaning their homes and cars in preparation for Passover. Some will go to the lengths of emptying out every book on the shelf, too.
Also, because Jews cannot own chametz, they must go through the process of selling any chametz they might own. However, many Jews will simply use up all of their leavened foods before Passover or donate them to a food pantry.
The actual types of grains from the Torah are not known with absolute certainty. When the Torah was translated, these grains became known as wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats, although some of these were not known to the people of Ancient Israel (Mishnah Pesachim 2:5).
Oats did not grow in ancient Israel, but because spelt and rye are closely related to wheat, they are considered among the prohibited grains.
The basic commandments (mitzvot) for Passover include
- The positive mitzvah to remove all chametz from one's home from Exodus 12:15.
- To not own chametz in one's domicile and properties from Exodus 12:19 and Deuteronomy 16:4.
- To not eat chametz or mixtures containing chametz from Exodus 13:3, Exodus 12:20, and Deuteronomy 16:3.
Of the more obscure Passover food restrictions, kitniyot is becoming more well known around the world. The word literally means "small things" and refers to legumes and grains other than wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats. Customs surrounding what constitutes kitniyot varies from community to community, but across the board usually includes rice, corn, lentils, beans, and, sometimes, peanuts.
These customs are potent in the Ashkenazic Jewish community but in Sephardic Jewish communities is not observed. However, some Jews from Spain and North Africa, like Moroccan Jews, do avoid rice during Passover.
The source of this tradition has several suggested beginnings.
One comes from the fear of these items, which are small and often resemble the prohibited grains, mixing in with chametz and inadvertently being consumed by Jews during Passover. At one time, grains were often stored together in large sacks, regardless of their type, which created concerns for the rabbis. Likewise, grains are often grown in adjacent fields, so cross-contamination is a concern.
In fact, the Vilna Gaon cites a source for this custom in the Talmud in which there was an objection to workers cooking a food called chasisi (lentils) on Passover because it often was confused with chametz (Pesachim 40b).
Another origin story is related to the Talmudic concept of marit ayin, or "how it appears to the eye." Although it is not strictly prohibited to consume kitniyot during Passover, there is a concern about a person might be thought to be eating chametz. The concept is similar to eating a kosher hamburger with vegan cheese, which many will not do, because it might appear to an onlooker than the individual is eating something not kosher.
Although it is forbidden for Ashekanzic Jews to consume kitniyot on Passover, it is not forbidden to own the items. Why? Because while the prohibition against chametz comes from the Torah, the prohibition against kitniyot comes from the rabbis. Likewise, there are groups of Ashkenazic Jews, such as within the Conservative Movement, who are moving toward no longer observing the tradition of kitniyot.
Nowadays, more and more food is being labeled Kosher for Passover with a kitniyot acknowledgement, such as Manischewitz's Kitni line of products. In the past, nearly all packaged kosher for Passover foods were made without kitniyot to service the larger Ashkenazic community.
Gebrochts or gebrokts, meaning "broken" in Yiddish, refers to matzah that has absorbed liquid. This particular observance is observed by many in the Hasidic Jewish community and other Ashkenazi Jews who have been influenced by Hasidism.
This prohibition originates from Jews being forbidden to eat any of the five grains mentioned above when they've been leavened. Once flour has reacted with water and rapidly baked into matzah, it's no longer subject to leavening. As such, it isn't actually possible to further "leaven" matzah during Passover. In fact, during Talmudic and Medieval times, matzah soaked in water was permitted during Passover (Talmud Berachot 38b).
However, later in the Hasidic Jewish community, it became custom not to put matzah or its derivatives like matzah meal into any liquid in order to avoid the possibility that there might be some flour that didn't properly leaven during the original 18-minute mix-and-bake period. The custom appears in the 19th-century work Shulchan Aruch HaRav and is believed to have originated with Dov Ber of Mezeritch.
As such, some Jews are "non-gebrokts" over Passover and will not eat things like matzah ball soup and will often even eat their matzah in a baggie in order to avoid any liquid coming in contact with it. They typically will substitute potato starch for matzah meal in recipes, too.