As the Jewish calendar turns toward Pesach and we contemplate the story of Exodus, we also might wonder about the strong role of food in the story of this holiday – in particular, the categories and directives it provides for bread and other grains. These crops are often considered central to the current human way of living. What did they mean to us at that time, and how do they make us who we are now?
In part 1 of this presentation, Dr. Jerrold Davis discussed the ancient genetic relationships between the grains we consume today, whether kosher for Passover or not. In this response to his presentation, Rabbi Rachel Safman delves into the history of how the category came to exist in the first place.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Rabbi Rachel Safman is Rabbi at Temple Beth El in Ithaca, NY, and Jerrold Davis is Emeritus Professor of Plant Biology at Cornell University).Read Transcript
Rachel Safman: That was absolutely fascinating. And I am going to make my comments, or additions, relatively brief, because they reflect not a lifetime of delving into the subject in detail, but rather a far more superficial perusal of the topic, in which I was abetted greatly by some of my colleagues, especially some on the Committee of Laws and Standards. I’ll tip my hat, once again, to Rabbi David Golinkin in Jerusalem, whose fellowship is always extraordinary.
But I will share also some insights that are my own, and some additional thoughts that I gleaned in conversation with my own teacher, Yoni Tzevet, who is a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, a scholar who uses archaeological and linguistic methodologies to better understand some of the roots of our tradition, and the way that they come to be explained in our texts. And it can be argued, not as a correct positioning of history per se, but as an origin myth, as the narrative that underlies our sense of our coming into being as a people, that as we look at the Biblical text, as we look at the text of the Torah in particular, the movement from Beresheit to Sh’mot, and then moving forward from there into the period of the Nevi’im, of the Prophets, that we’re actually seeing an account that, in many ways, follows the same arc – not necessarily, again, in the correct timeline – as the anthropological development that Jerry sketched out for us, in terms of the movement of the human species, from being kind of serendipitous gatherers of foodstuffs to deliberate cultivators – first, shepherds of livestock species that were dependent on the availability of water, and then looking to settled cultivation as being their primary occupation.
And we see that again in the Biblical narrative, in terms of the attributes of the people who go down to Goshen, who go down to settle in Egypt, who are explicitly described as being a shepherding people. Indeed, they were told to settle separately from the Egyptians because their agricultural practices, the agricultural practices of the Nevi’im, were at odds with those of the Egyptians who, dwelling on the river’s banks – the banks of the River Nile primarily – had progressed to a settled agriculture as their primary form of subsistence. And then emerging from that – yes, with their livestock. Indeed, if we have been paying attention over the last few days to the Torah reading, the pharaoh of Egypt explicitly sends the Israelites out of Egypt, tzon bakar – “with their flock animals and herd animals,” that they should return to Eretz Israel, return to a land that the members of that generation had never known, but which they had from their own history, real or mythic. [It] was the land of their forebears, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in Israel.
But when they settled there, when they were able to cross the Jordan, they quickly established themselves not as a pastoral people, but increasingly as an agricultural people. And as we follow the history of the Israelite tribes through the Nevi’im, in particular the transition from Joshua, through Shoftim and into Shmuel and Melachim, we are seeing the people become an increasingly settled people, a people who are concerned with maintaining the integrity of a fixed body of territory within which, yes, they did cultivate livestock, but increasingly they are cultivating grains and subsisting on the results of the grain cultivation. In fact, through the book of Shoftim, we see increasing references to individuals being confronted – in some cases by other humans, in some cases by angels – but in the course of pursuing agricultural pursuits, meaning the cultivation and processing of grains – rather than traveling, as did the earliest generations of our named ancestors with their flocks, in the pursuit of adequate feed.
But the re-centralization of Israelite society, of what became Jewish society, from a society that was based around shepherding practices to a society that is based on settled cultivation, takes us only so far in understanding some of the practices that come to be so central to the observance of the Passover Festival in our own day. It comes to explain – and this is written right into the Toraitic text – the idea that not only Pesach, but each of the three pilgrimage holidays, coincides with a period of harvest, as Jerry just explained so beautifully in his explication of the Hebrew calendar. The calendar itself is attuned to periods of agricultural harvest, which would have had no significance, or much less central significance, in the period of Avraham Avinu, in the period of a man whose primary concern, if you think back to the interactions he had with his contemporaries, were insuring that his flocks had sufficient pasturage, and therefore, the need to separate from his nephews Lot and his flocks. Or Jacob, similarly, separating from Laban, from his uncle, in order to see that the herds of each would have sufficient room to graze.
We go from that to a society, to a calendar, in which it’s the cultivation of grains that are primary. And indeed, in the Biblical text, the various rights and prohibitions that pertain to the Passover festival have to do specifically with those grains, have to do specifically with what the rabbis, at least early on, came to explicate as the five biblical grains, which Jerry named for us. Let’s see if I can get it right – every time I go through them, either lose one or I gain something that is not a Biblical grain. The wheat is easy – it’s still our central focus here in North America. Rye, barley, oats, and spelt.
Jerrold Davis: Emmer. That’s the trick. Wheat and Emmer are two of them, and they’re both wheats.
Rachel Safman: Got it.
Jerrold Davis: And then rye, barley, oats. I’ve kind of had that spinning in my head for quite a while.
Rachel Safman: Actually, for you, it felt like a fertile field, because you have the vocabulary, the various grains, neatly catalogued in your brain, in a way that my mind does not.
Jerrold Davis: There’s nothing in my head that’s neatly catalogued.
Rachel Safman: (laughs) Well, I have to confess that I fall into the class of the early generation of Talmudic scholars who argued that spelt was in fact also wheat. And Jerry, you’ll have to tell me whether that is correct or not, but interestingly, what we see emerging in the rabbinic text – they talk about the observance of Pesach. And Pesach is important enough that it gets its own tractate in the Babylonian Talmud. And the rabbis, in their study of the observance of Pesach, as in their study of the Torahitic text writ large, have as their central project a concern with how they are to accurately translate the largely conceptual statues of the Torahitic text into practical, actionable items that can then be lived out and adjudicated in their own day.
So the Tractate Pesachim, starting at least in its earlier chapters, is concerned with figuring out what the boundaries are between permissible and non-permissible foodstuffs, an obsession which has continued obviously to our own era. And in the course of this discussion – indeed, already in the Mishnaic discussion, so in the discussion of this topic that was going on in the land of Israel in the first, maybe second, century of the Common Era – they’re already making distinctions amongst the varieties of cultivated plants that are habitually found as the mainstays of their diet. And I’m going to actually – if I’m successful in this, steal, quite literally, a page, or a slide, from Jerry’s book here, because I just want to go back and share with you the list of crops that he had prepared. I was so taken by this when he shared this list with me without the beautiful visuals, but he shared this list with me early in our conversation.
And if you look, the list seems to split almost perfectly between the crops that were clearly in the class of being chametz – that is, clearly in the class of being Biblical grains – and then this other class of plants. For those who don’t know what vetch is, it’s another leguminous kind of vine-y crop, somewhat related to peas, or so I’m told. I have never knowingly either planted or consumed vetch, but Jerry is shaking his head positively. So that’s a good sign, because he knows of what he speaks.
So we’re seeing that in terms of the plants that are being regularly cultivated, that they have indeed been incredibly ancient history already in the time of the prophets and the kings in the ancient Near East. We see this practice of regularly cultivating, and then, of course, incorporating into the diet, both plants that are clearly grains, many, but not all of which are listed in the Torahitic texts, and this other widely cultivated set of species that are leguminous.
And there comes to be a discussion already in the Babylonian Talmud, which is far earlier than I would have expected it, of how we distinguish which of these various cultivated species, which of these consumables, are restricted with respect to the observance of Passover, and which are not.
Now, you might imagine, based on the trend in rabbinic thought over the last 200 – 500 years, maybe a thousand, that what the rabbis do when they get hold of this list of possible foodstuffs is just start adding to the list until they can find no more new foods to add. That clearly seems to have been the trend in Europe in about the 18th Century, where there was what are describes as the “kitniyot wars.” All of the sudden, just this proliferation of foods that came to be banned from the Passover diet of the Jews of Ashkenaz, the Jews of the Rhineland, Eastern, Central, and to some extent they moved to Eastern Europe as well. In fact, I have a list here that includes foods that were, at some point, banned, and include – let me just throw out a term, now, for the sake of a definition and discussion. Kitnit, used in the most precise sense, is a legume. So kitniyot are “the legumes.”
But in addition to leguminous foods, the rabbis by the early 19th century had banned the oils of leguminous species, caraway seeds, tea, coffee, potatoes, Egyptian beans, peanuts, sesame seeds, radish, garlic, buckwheat, mustard, and sunflower seeds.
Now I should say, Jerry was very careful when he was transmitting his knowledge to the audience this evening. He made two types of distinctions that are important. The first is knowledge that is his own, and knowledge that he’s gleaned from other sources. And the second is things of more practical or actionable nature that that he did not have enough faith in to tell you to act, in the case of gluten. And here, I am going to say with the authority of mara d’atra of this congregation, but not of being the rabbinic voice speaking for the various communities from which your family might have originated, that I am in no way advocating that you run back to your pantries and eliminate all of the foodstuffs that I’ve just named. In fact, during the heat of the kitniyot wars, it’s not exactly clear. What besides matzo, eggs, maybe lettuce and water was permissible in the Ashkenazic diet during Passover – which, unsurprisingly, led it to be a fairly somber and arid time in the communities of Ashkenaz, as everybody spent most of the eight days wondering whether or not something that they had already appeared on their table was subsequently going to be declared as a forbidden food.
But nevertheless, let’s go back to the earliest text – go back to the Mishnah, back to the Gemara, to the Talmud, and see what it has to say. As the rabbis of the age of the earliest statutes, they are making the distinction between foods that are permitted and those that aren’t. The Talmud actually goes to the extent of explicitly evaluating whether rice – now, rice is not a legume, right. Rice is – Jerry, you’re going to give me the thumbs up on this – rice is a true grain. It has all those properties Jerry talked about, the stem that splits off into the blade that produces the grain that you can break off the outer bran fairly evenly fairly easily, et cetera. Rice is a true grain. But when the sages of the Tannaim and Amoraim considered rice, they explicitly came to the conclusion that rice and millet, another true grain, were permissible on Pesach. They said that what was forbidden from consumption on Pesach were the five biblical grains. And that’s where we get that definition of chametz – it’s going back to the Talmud.
They furthermore, later in the text, come to consider the case of legumes. And they say that these two are not forbidden during Pesach, because they make a distinction between foods that, when exposed to water and allowed to sit for a period will chimetz, will become leavened, and those that will sirchon, those that will become “degraded,” just kind of break down. And it was their opinion that the legumes, amongst others, broke down when they were allowed to just sit in water. They didn’t become a leavened product. And so the Talmud would seem to clearly close the debate on kitniyot in terms of its permissibility on Pesach in the 4th, 5th century of the Common Era. If only.
I think we have to go back to some of the early anthropological evidence of the ways in which these very ancient grains and legumes were being cultivated, were being grown in tandem with one another, to realize why this obsession with the relationship between the two of them became such a recurrent theme in rabbinic thought. Because what we find, in fact, is that going back already to the Rishonim, going back to some of our earliest commentators on the Talmud and on Jewish law, authorities like the Rambam are already making comments, saying that the practice of forbidding kitniyot, of forbidding legumes, and of forbidding non-biblical grains at Passover, in the Minchat Chiunkh, that it is a ridiculous custom which should be thrown out.
But they’re arguing in response to something, right? If you say that people are doing something that’s ridiculous and that doesn’t follow Jewish law, you’re implicitly saying that “This is a widespread practice that I need to respond to.” And in fact, although this kind of purist trope that keeps harking back to the idea that legumes, and that non-Biblical grains, are not a problem during Pesach, recurs in almost every generation of sages. You have, similarly, this growing, increasingly aggressive chorus of sages, particularly in Ashkenaz, who keep coming back to the fact that these foods should be forbidden, and they should be forbidden for various reasons.
And this is where it gets interesting. And I’m going to call upon the Rabbi Golinkin’s scholarship, because he’s pulled up sources that are just far deeper and more diverse than I ever would have found on my own.
So one class of argument that’s made for forbidding some of the kitniyot is because the changes that some of the legumes make are indeed – and here, they call upon chickpeas in particular – are indeed described as chimtzei, that they would become leavened. And so while it’s not a forbidden grain (and yes, the Talmud said decisively it is not a problem), it just sounds so similar, and the process it undergoes is so similar, how could it not be? So we’re just going to expand the fence a bit.
Then there are also arguments – and I’m not sure if this is one Jerry has investigated in his evolution of the grain families – but an argument that was being made in, I believe, the 12th century that in fact vetch is a particularly tricky sort of plant, that if you look the other way, will turn into wheat! (laughs). So if you’re thinking that it’s just a matter of polyploidy and such in the chromosomes, you’ve missed an important avenue of “evolution,” that vetch can turn into wheat! So you don’t want to put it in your pot, because you never know when it’s going to, you know, do a trick behind your back and you’re going to find out with a pot full of wheat.
Then there are a set of arguments that I think are more plausible to our own modern ears, and that therefore have come to be relayed to us – arguments having to do with the way in which grains and legumes came to be cooked, came to be stored, came to be cultivated, and the fact that there was a chance that in these processes, there might be inadvertent admixtures of the two, such that when you thought you were eating a legume that would have been fine, you’re in fact eating a legume and a forbidden grain. And since on Pesach, we are not allowed any measure of error, then it was impermissible to allow yourself to consume a potential admixture of a grain and a legume.
he problem with that is that already, in the 11th century, there are well-respected scholars within the European Jewish community who are saying, “Well, there’s an easy solution to that. If you dump the whole thing into a pot of boiling water, having originated in a dried state, the water is going to cook it so fast that the grain, even if there’s grain there, would not have a chance to leaven.” And so just as we know that matzoh is, in fact, made with wheat, it’s not that we can’t eat wheat – we can’t eat leavened wheat. But if you put your legumes into boiling water, any grain that’s mixed in with them is immediately zapped, is rendered incapable of leavening, and becomes permitted foodstuff.
So with that argument having been advanced, you would kind of think, again, that the rabbis would loose their hold on this concept of kitniyot, and we would all be eating lentils at our seder table. Well, not so much. There’s another line of argument that is seldom spelled out, but that seems to have weighed heavily on the thinking of the rabbis, probably going back even to the times of Bavel. And then has to do with the circumstances under which different foods are consumed. We know, for example, that in the case of Ezekiel, that as he is being driven out of Jerusalem into exile in Babylonia, that he eats barley bread, that he eats something which is an undesirable foodstuff, and that’s a sign of the degraded condition of the Israelite people, having fallen victims to the predation of the Babylonians.
And similarly, the leguminous crops – lentils, beans, peas, etc. – were a food stuff that were all quite central to the diet in the ancient Near East, in the more contemporary near East, and also in Europe, where a food that was associated with, kind of the need to subsist – it was not a food that was thought out as being an elevated foodstuff. In fact, lentils were associated in particular with the period leading up to Tisha B’av, with a period of mourning.
And so it is believed, and there is some textual evidence to support this, that not only at Pesach, but on each of the pilgrimage holidays originally, the rabbis would question their congregations against preparing a meal based around the leguminous foods, because that’s what you did when you were mourning, not when you were celebrating. And when you’re in a time of festive celebration, you should be eating a more elevated meal. Indeed, another focus within the Tractate Pesachim is on making sure that every member of the community has the means, economically, to be eating a more elevated diet on the festival nights.
And so, the concern with legumes appearing on the table, not as something that introduces contamination, but it’s something that kind of just brings down the status of the meal, brings down the mood of the assembly, is perhaps hovering like that 500 pound gorilla or something – the knuckle-walker in the background – as the rabbis are debating the appropriateness of legumes to the festival diet and then, in particular, to the Passover diet. That is a time in which our focus on the meal, not just the quality of the meal writ large, but the actual content of the meal, rises to a state of heightened anxiety.
I’d go on, but I’m sure that the questions that you have are questions that are directed much more at Jerry and his incredible depth of knowledge than my own. But I just do want to make you aware that interestingly, the in-gathering of the communities of Ashkenaz with those of Sefarad that did not pursue this obsession with kitniyot in nearly the same degree of refinement as did their European counterparts. Their cohabitation, if you will, in the land of Israel has forced, in recent decades, a rethinking amongst a lot of Ashkenazi communities about the appropriateness of maintaining the prohibitions on kitniyot in our own generation. And there have been now definitive statements both by the Masorti movement in Israel, and by the Conservative movement, its sister movement here in the United States, as well as blanket statements by authorities in the land of Israel, Orthodox authorities that say that prohibitions on kitniyot should no longer apply in our own day.
Wherever you have two rabbis, you have at least three opinions, so I just want to make you aware that there was a dissenting opinion voiced but not ratified by the Conservative movement in this country that said minha ve’ateinu aleinu, “the customs of our ancestors remain binding upon us.” And if your great-grandfather, may he rest in peace, in his birthplace, in Poland, would not have eaten that mustard seed, that you shouldn’t be eating it in your own day. Because how can it be a Pesach if you’re eating a food that would cause your great-great-grandfather to roll over in his grave?
I’m being reminded by people more attentive to time than myself, which is most of the human population, but in this case, my husband, that we have obligations to allow those who want to go off and spend a portion of their evening doing other things to do so without feeling obliged to us. So let me, on behalf of this gathering, Jerry, extend, my heartfelt thanks to you for an absolutely absorbing talk. I never thought that I would want to spend not only an hour or more, but days, discussing grains with somebody, but I have since discovered that I’m just scratching the service in terms of what you can share. And we’re so blessed today to have you share your wealth of knowledge with us.
Jerrold Davis: Thank you very much. It was a fun project to do. A lot of that stuff has nothing to do with what I did in my actual career, and it was nice to have a broadening, you know, a little bit of a fermentation, of some of the ideas that I’ve been working with for a long time. Thank you very much.
Rachel Safman: So long as you’re fermenting rice and legumes and not wheat, that’s perfectly Kosher. (laughs)
Jerrold Davis: I don’t think we ever got to the bottom of kitniyot, did we?
Rachel Safman Nor will we ever!
Jerrold Davis: No.