Shabbat ha-Gadol! This is the Great Sabbath that precedes Pesach. The Sabbath’s special name most likely originates from our haftarah reading for this Shabbat wherein Malachi prophesizes about the coming of Elijah and that Yom Adonai hagadol v’hanora, that Great and awe-inspiring day which will herald God’s redemption. The name is also fitting because historically Shabbat ha-Gadol was one of two Sabbaths during the year (the other being Shabbat Shuva) when there was an expectation for the community’s rabbi to share instruction, and that instruction was often quite gadol. There is much to be discussed regarding Passover and its laws, and Shabbat HaGadol provided the opportunity to review the litany of detail particularly related to the dietary prescriptions and restrictions of the holiday.
Recall that there was a time when a rabbi’s primary role was not one of worship leader but rather one of legal decision maker and advisor for the community. Their job was to interpret the law and advise individuals accordingly. Members of the community, chazzanim and darshanim, led worship and offered thoughts on Torah, not necessarily their rabbinic leaders.
The tradition of the Rabbi preparing and delivering a grand sermon on this Shabbat – and one,davka, that would serve as a highlight of the year – comes as a challenge to those of us who serve pulpits while also taking care of sick children and preparing for the holiday seder. The world has changed a great deal from the model set forth by history. As women have entered the Rabbinate and men’s roles in parenting and household responsibilities have changed, today’s Rabbis have an entire breadth of non-rabbinic responsibility that our pre-modern ancestors couldn’t imagine.
Our pre-modern ancestors may also have been hard pressed to imagine the preponderance of discussion regarding the great quinoa debate that has arisen in recent years around Pesach. Thus, following at least part of the Shabbat HaGadoltradition, I would like to discuss the dietary rules of this upcoming festival with regard specifically to this charming rebel-rousing seed, known as quinoa.
Quinoa is just that - a seed, a seed that resembles, cooks, and tastes like a grain but is not at all a grain. According to a website providing historical information on this seemingly new food item, quinoa has been a staple in South American diets for over 6000 years despite, until the last decade or so, our lack of awareness here, up North. I personally first discovered Quinoa during my years as a vegetarian learning about it from a vegan cooking instructor. It is a primary food in non-meat and non-dairy diets due to its being a nutritionally complete protein source. Quinoa is actually a member of the goosefoot family, a category that includes beets, swiss chard, spinach, and amaranth. Despite its grain-like quality, it has no relation to any of the 5-grains forbidden on Passover, namely wheat, spelt, oats, barley, or rye; nor is it related to the extended category of kitniyot(such as rice and beans) that most Ashkenazic Jews continue to avoid during the days of Pesach.
Initially, as early as 1997, quinoa was deemed kosher for Passover by mainstream Orthodox kashrut standards. It was understood that it had no relation to any grain or kitniyot, and it was tested in order to make sure it had no leavening qualities. It didn’t, thus it was deemed fair game.
The issue did not rest, however. Looking for reasons to prohibit, to further tighten the limits around this festival, some Orthodox authorities are arguing to include quinoa among the foods in the kitniyot category. The basis of that ruling has all to do with the possibility that quinoa could be confused with grain or infected with grain. The Orthodox Union has now officially stated that, "There is a difference of opinion among Rabbinic decisors (machloket ha-poskim) as to whether quinoa is considered kitniyot. Ask your Rabbi for his guidance…”
I am fascinated with this quinoa debate in part because I continue to eat a lot of quinoa despite my no longer being a vegetarian, but more so because of what the debate seems to represent. Pesach celebrates our liberation from bondage, and yet, there continues to be such a strident effort to limit what is okay to ingest during these festive days. There seems to be far more attention paid to what goes into our mouths and stomachs then towards celebrating our spring festival. The level of scrutiny that is being applied to this entirely non-grain food source – a food source that could enrich Passover meals -- represents a legal system that has become thoroughly distorted and detached from the spirit of the festival. It’s okay to eat kosher-for Passover cereals and noodles that look, act, and strive to taste like chametz, but it isn’t okay to eat quinoa which has no relation whatsoever to chametz?
Though this debate is taking place largely outside of our Progressive circles, it should challenge us to consider what it means to be an observant Jew, regardless of denomination. We are deep into the book of Leviticus, a book consumed with ritual detail and rules. The purpose of these numerous rules, as I expressed last Shabbat, were in essence to define the community and draw the Israelites together and towards God. They provided a structure for this newly liberated people so that they could function well as a society. As we begin to experience and celebrate Pesach, our Z'man Cheiruteinu, our season of liberation, let us be mindful and conscious of the choices we make. Let us ensure that the limitations we place on ourselves are not for the sake of stridency but rather for the sake of recalling our history, celebrating our redemption, and reminding ourselves of the mandate to continue working towards that task.