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Explaining Kosher for Passover, How To Keep Kosher & Why

Explaining Kosher for Passover

It’s that time of year again: Spring has (hopefully) arrived and the boxes of matzah as well as a variety of Peeps have hit the shelves in your local grocery stores. Passover is one of the most important Jewish holidays, celebrating freedom from slavery and the series of events that led to the Israelites truly becoming a people, bonded by a miraculous and important shared experience. As many of us gather at the seder table this year, whether for the first time or as you’ve been doing your whole life, what we will explain the most—after the story of the great Exodus, of course—is food. The inevitable what can you eat/ what do you eat/ what can I serve conversation that might take place in our modern world of vegetarianism to gluten free to dairy free and beyond, is even more complicated when you add in kosher for Passover.

If you’re undertaking “keeping Passover” for the first time, or if you live with someone who is or are visiting someone who might be, here are a few things to keep in mind that will hopefully make the K for P situation a bit easier.

Why Do We Keep Kosher?

In the Book of Exodus, as the former Hebrew slaves are fleeing Egypt, having finally been set free by Pharaoh, they quickly collect their things and must put not-yet-risen bread dough on their backs. The hot sun bakes the bread but it does not rise; alas, the first matzah. Therefore, over the seven or eight days of Passover as prescribed by the Torah (we’ll get to that later), we do not eat leavened bread. It is a reminder of the struggle our ancestors undertook both as slaves and in their quest for freedom. We are reminded each year to cherish our freedom and not take it for granted. Therefore, we retell our story together with friends and family during the seder and symbolically mimic this journey over the course of the Passover meal and duration of the holiday.

How Do We Do It?

Over the years, many brilliant Jewish scholars and rabbis have continued to interpret this rule of no leavening, even to this day, trying to be even more clear about what is “in” and what is “out.”  Of course, as you might imagine, this gets complicated and different groups of Jews adhere to different traditions and practices.
Fear not, there are a few simple guidelines to keep in mind when thinking about your own kosher for Passover practices or when explaining them to anyone in your life who might not know. While many Jews all over the world are extremely strict about not only the food they consume but also the food in their home and the absence of even a crumb of “chametz,” the non-kosher for Passover food, I firmly believe it is the intention behind the rule that matters. Do your best to explain, do your best to understand and try your best to be understanding and respectful when and if things aren’t perfect.

General Rules:

1.     Don’t eat anything with yeast that could rise, categorized as “chametz” which means nothing with the following ingredients: wheat, oats, rye, barley and spelt. So, no bread, crackers, cookies, cakes, etc. Even the things that look like they might be flat could have yeast. When in doubt, look for the kosher for Passover symbol on the label. The symbols differ, but most often will have some sort of K or U in a circle or another shape along with a P for Passover. It might even just say kosher for Passover.

2.      No “Kitniyot,” a category of food including, rice, corn, millet, legumes, dried beans, lentils, peas, green beans, soybeans, peanuts, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and mustard. This also means corn syrup, which as all of those lovely commercials tell us, is in everything. There are some more liberal Jews who don’t go as far as to ban corn syrup because it is so difficult to avoid, but again, look for the kosher for Passover symbol if you want to make sure, and ask.

Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic (aka more complications!):

There are all sorts of Jews in the world, defined by not only adherence or rejection of traditional practice or connection with a formal movement of Judaism but also defined by geography. Historically, the two types of Jewish ethnicities are Ashkenazi, predominantly of Eastern European origin and Sephardic, generally from North African, the Middle East and Spain/Portugal. In America, the Ashkenazi population is much larger than the Sephardic population, so chances are, the Jews you know are Ashkenazi. It never hurts to ask, if you aren’t sure. When it comes to Passover, there are a few basic differences between keeping kosher for Passover as an Ashkenazi Jew and as a Sephardic Jew.

Generally, the major difference between how Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews keep Passover is the second category above, “kitniyot.” While forbidden in Ashkenazi circles, this collection of corn, rice, millet and legumes, etc. are perfectly acceptable for Sephardic Jews, so don’t be scandalized when you see a Sephardic Jew munching on some popcorn while an Ashkenazi Jew looks on longingly.

How Long Do We Do It?

Just to make things a tad more complex, there are some Jews who keep Passover for eight days and some for only seven. As a generalization, Israelis tend to keep Passover for seven days and those outside of Israel for eight. This is due to an ancient custom of celebrating for an extra day which developed from difficulties in communicating exactly which day was the first day of the holiday.

Decide which is your preference if you haven’t already, and mark it on your calendar—not only so you know when you can eat a slice of pizza again—but also just in case you’ve made any plans with family or friends and might have to be creative about what you eat.

For those of you who aren’t keeping kosher for Passover but know someone who is, the Jewish calendar is counted evening to evening rather than day to day. The first night of Passover, beginning at sundown, begins the holiday but the first DAY of Passover is the following day. For example: If the first seder is on a Friday night, then the first day of Passover is on Saturday. Therefore, Passover ends when the sun sets on the seventh or eight night. I know it seems complicated, but open your calendar and count it out if you’re a visual learner like me and it will hopefully become clearer!

Got it?

I know, there are a lot of rules.  But here’s the bottom line, when celebrating any holiday in an interfaith context, whether within your own family or visiting friends, the best policy is to ask. Just as you would with any other dietary restrictions, be open and clear about what you need. If you are a guest, try to make it as easy on your host as possible and if you are a host, do your best, ask a lot of questions and then stop worrying. There are countless recipes online, and many options for delicious kosher for Passover meals!

Hopefully this guide provided some easy parameters to use when explaining what you or a family member or friend will and won’t eat during this seven or eight day holiday.  Please feel free to contact us or post a comment if you have more specific questions, and keep an eye out for all of our other great Passover related resources. A sweet and meaningful Passover and happy spring!

Rabbi Jillian Cameron

Rabbi Jillian Cameron is the former director of 18Doors/Boston. She was ordained at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2012 after receiving a Master’s Degree in Jewish Education in 2008.