By Rabbi Sholom Shuchat
Dayan in the Beth Din of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the USA & Canada
A story is told of a pious Jew who was very stringent on Pesach, keeping every possible Chumrah he heard about.
One year, on Chol Hamoed, a Chassidic Rebbe came to town and visited this Jew; the Jew bragged about his various Chumros, stating that even his water is collected before Pesach and stored in special barrels. The Rabbi told him “Go check your water barrel, in there you will find a piece of bread…”
The Jew did as he was told and lo and behold, the pious Jew came back after a few minutes crestfallen and crying, he has found a piece of bread in his barrel of Pesach water. The distraught Jew cried to the Rebbe asking him why did he deserve such agony, he has done everything he could to prevent Chometz, and has taken every possible precaution.
The Rabbi responded, “This is why it happened… The Arizal writes that whomever is careful not to consume even a speck of Chametz is guaranteed not to sin during the upcoming year; this is an impossible feat to achieve without the help of G-d, so we do as much as we can within reason, and we leave the rest to G-d. You, on the other hand, took every possible precaution even beyond reason, thus leaving nothing for G-d to help, and therefore you had no Siyata Dishamaya and transgressed the prohibition of Chametz.”
The holiday of freedom has become a holiday of abstinence, a holiday in which we are defined by what we don’t eat. Chabad has taken the cake with an enormous amount of Hiddurim or Chumros, with some people even choosing to eat potatoes, onions, carrots and beets for a whole week, in tribute to the vegetables which grow in Siberia.
However, for a person living in the USA, the land of unlimited opportunities, the prospect of keeping old traditions might not be appealing, leading some to say that indeed “America is different” (at least on Pesach).
Therefore, it is of utmost importance to know the various Chumros and their reasoning, so a person choosing to change a family Chumrah, or to adopt a new Chumrah, can make an educated decision based on knowledge and not on speculation.
CHUMROS ON PESACH
There are hundreds of Chumros regarding Pesach, some cut across a broad spectrum of the Jewish nation, such as the prohibition of “Kitniyos” which applies to the whole Ashkenazic Jewry; some are Chumros which were accepted by the Chassidic world, such as Gebroks, which was instituted because of the changing circumstances; some are Chumros which were apply to a certain Chassidic group, such as peeling vegetables; and some are plain family customs, which are relevant only to one’s family.
It is therefore of utmost importance to know the source and reasoning for the Chumros, as some of them aren’t applicable, and some of them aren’t Chumros but have become Halacha due to changing circumstances.
When discussing the various Chumros, some might want to change an existing custom, this poses a unique Halachic challenge, as the person might need “Hatoras Nedorim” to change the custom; however, this only applies to certain Chumros.
The “Meiri” writes (not in regards to Pesach), that there are different categories of customs: a custom followed by a community or instituted by the local Rabbi – has the same strength as Halacha, and cannot be changed without “Hatoras Nedorim,” even if the reasoning is flawed or not applicable. However, a personal custom, if it has some connection to Halacha then “Hatoras Nedorim” is required, but if it has no source at all, then there is no need for “Hatoras Nedorim” and it can be changed at will.
The Rebbe writes, that the accepted custom is to eat only at home (Igros Kodesh Vol. 24 page 67), citing the reason that it is impossible for one to be stringent when away from home.
The Chabad custom is to refrain from eating any processed foods, to the extent that some bake their own Matzah and make their own wine.
The reasoning behind it is twofold: (a) because in the past, food was processed with much human intervention, and there was no way to ensure that the workers didn’t bring in any Chametz; (b) the same equipment was used for many products, and there was no proper cleaning and/or Kashering. In today’s day and age, human intervention in the production of food is either non existent or very limited, and machinery is rarely used for various products (specifically because of the raised awareness to cross-contamination and allergies), but the Kashering problem still exists.
Therefore, the Chumra against eating processed food has evolved into different Chumros, with each family choosing how strict to be. This is especially applicable today, when it is practically impossible for a person to refrain from any processed foods, with salt being a prime example. Some will only eat foods processed in facilities which are Kosher L’Pesach year-round, such as wineries, Matzah bakeries and certain kitchen products; some will eat also products which were made on Kashered equipment, as long as the product isn’t processed hot; and some will only eat products in which there is no human intervention at all.
For those who eat processed foods, it is of utmost importance to double-check the Hechsher on the Pesach product, for sometimes the reliable Hechsher is only for year-round, and for Pesach they use a Hechsher which is not up to par with one’s standards.
Let’s analyze some of the common Pesach Chumros and their reasoning:
The main Chumrah which is adhered by Lubavitchers is the care not to eat gebrokts. The Alter Rebbe instituted this because of a change in the production of Matzah.
In his responsa (Siman 6), the Alter Rebbe explains that people stopped taking the time to knead the dough properly to ensure that all the flour is mixed, and instead opted to speed the process of kneading and baking the Matzah, which causes that some of the flour stays on the Matzah, and if that flour touches water – it can become Chametz. Therefore, the Alter Rebbe writes that it’s prohibited to consume Matzah which touched water during Pesach.
However, the Alter Rebbe clearly stipulates that this prohibition does not apply at all to fruit juices, for according to Halacha, pure fruit juices (without a drop of water) can not make flour into Chametz (the same applies to eggs, oil and milk).
The Rebbe Rashab would eat Matzah with “Shmura Milk” and wine. The milk was milked in a way which ensured that no water touched the milk and no water was in the milking pails; regarding the wine, care was taken that no water touched the wine after it’s fermentation (any water which was added before fermentation is not a problem for gebrokts).
Therefore, Matzah may be eaten with vegetables, fruits, wine, milk or any kind of juice which was made without a drop of water.
However, on Acharon Shel Pesach, the Chabad Minhag is to eat gebrokts; one of the reasons given by the Rebbe for this custom is that during Pesach we celebrate the exodus from Egypt, when the Jews were fleeing from the negative and had to be careful with Chametz, but on Acharon Shel Pesach, the light of Moshiach shines, and during the final redemption all Jews will be Tzadikim and will not have to fight the negative, therefore we eat Gebroks (Likutei Sichos Vol. 22 page 30ff).
MILK & DAIRY PRODUCTS
Many have the custom to refrain from consuming any milk product during Pesach, the source for this custom is because the cows are fed Chometz all year-round, and it was hard to ensure that the place where the cows were kept was completely clean for Pesach.
However, in today’s day and age, the milk factories with a reliable Hechsher ensure that the place is clean and no Chometz is to be found. Additionally, many have the custom not to drink milk (or eat meat) from a cow that ate Chometz 24 hours before the milking, and that was hard to enforce.
When it comes to cheese, some will only consume milk but will not eat any cheeses; some will eat only soft cheeses such as cottage cheese and sour cream, with the reason being that those products are packaged within 24 hours of production and therefore don’t absorb from the Kashered equipment, but will refrain from hard cheeses, because those will be in the equipment for more than 24 hours before packaging.
Regarding fish, some communities have the custom not to eat fresh fish on Pesach, the reason is because the bait which was used to catch the fish was usually Chometz and when the fish was bought the Chometz was still in it and sometimes hard to find; additionally, there is no way of knowing if the fish ate Chometz within the past 24 hours. However, the Chabad Rebbeim would eat fish on Pesach.
In the past, those who ate fish would buy any fresh or frozen fish, without ensuring that it was Kosher L’Pesach, however in today’s day and age care must be taken before purchasing frozen fish, the reason being because of a change in processing frozen fish: Since fish which is frozen and defrosted will naturally lose some of it’s water content, the fish distributors inject a mixture of polyphosphates (which can be derived from Chometz) to the fish to help it retain it’s water, and it is common for certain starches (which can be Kitniyos) to be added with the polyphosphates to ensure it’s absorption.
Therefore, it is of utmost importance to buy fish only from a retailer which is certified with a good Hechsher.
SALT, SPICES AND SUGAR
Regarding salt, the common custom is to use coarse Kosher salt during Pesach, and refrain from using the thinner table salt. The custom originated before there were dedicated Kosher L’Pesach salt factories, and therefore the salt had to be checked before use to ensure that no flour was inadvertently mixed into it, and the checking is easier with larger-grain salt.
Today, the custom still exists, for table salt can be iodized, which is done by adding a mixture of potassium iodide and dextrose (to add in the binding of the iodide to the salt), which is usually derived from Kitniyos. The same production lines for iodized salt are also used for non-iodized table salt; however, the coarse Kosher salt is usually not iodized and therefore this problem is avoided.
Regarding sugar, the Rebbeim refrained from eating sugar, but the Rebbe said that it is not a custom for the masses, and if someone can ensure that his sugar is Kosher L’Pesach then it can be used (HaMelech B’Msibo Vol. 1 page 307).
The common custom is to boil and strain the sugar before Pesach, the reason being because in the past grain (and flour) sacks were reused for sugar, and to ensure that no flour was left the sugar was boiled and strained from any impurities. However, today there is Kosher L’Pesach sugar which is pure and doesn’t need to be checked.
Regarding spices, the common custom was to refrain from using certain spices such as black pepper, because the same mills were used for flour and for spices, and also grain sacks were reused for spices, and there is no way of checking if any flour was mixed into it. Garlic isn’t used for a different reason (to be discussed below).
SCHMALTZ VS. OIL
In the past, oil was produced in factories, and there was no way to ensure that there was no workers bringing in Chametz, therefore people only used Schmaltz, as they had their own chicken and they cleaned it themselves. Today, Schmaltz is also mass produced, and oil can certainly be used if it has a good Hechsher, for the factory is Kosher L’Pesach year-round and there is minimal human touch.
However, when it comes to olive oil a person must be extra careful. The New York Times has recently reported (and it was widely known beforehand), that 69% of extra virgin olive oil imported into the USA is either adulterated or fake, the high price of olive oil and the ease of adulterating it has spurred a whole industry of olive oil which is mixed with soybean oil and chlorophyll (to give it the green color) or plain soybean oil which is mixed with chlorophyll and flavoring and then sold as olive oil.
This problem is not so common in cheaper olive oils such as pomace, or in cheaper oils such as palm or cottonseed. It is therefore of utmost importance to only buy olive oil with a good Heimishe Hechsher for Pesach.
FRUITS & VEGETABLES
A common custom is to only eat fruits and vegetables which can be peeled, the reason was because the vegetables grew in the farmer’s little patch together with Kitniyos and Chametz, and therefore it was a Chumra not to eat the peel which might have touched Chametz.
However, today this Chumra is actually a Halachic obligation, because of the changing circumstances. A fruit or vegetable which is cut from the ground will usually start shrinking and rotting within a few days, additionally it is not usually shiny and nice, therefore companies customarily spray a mixture of fungicides and wax to the vegetables to retain prevent their water loss (which leads to shrinkage) and to give it an appealing shine. The mixture contains alcohol as an emulsifier to ensure the wax doesn’t separate from the fungicides, and that alcohol is usually Chametz or Kitniyos, and oleic acid which can be obtained from animal fat or more commonly, from Kitniyos; since the mixture is poured hot unto the fruits and vegetables, the Halacha is that it needs to be peeled.
Organic produce is no different, for they also use natural wax (which can be either animal-based or grain-based) and the alcohol. Washing the vegetable might remove the wax that is visible, but will not remove whatever was absorbed into the peel.
Among the common fruits and vegetables which have this problem: Apples, Pears, Eggplant, Cucumbers, Citrus Fruits, Peppers, Tomatoes, Potatoes, Zucchini and others. However, onions and root vegetables (such as carrots and beets) are usually not waxed.
Regarding lettuce, the custom is to only use it for the Seder, because it cannot be peeled.
Regarding garlic, the custom is not to eat it. The Pri Megadim writes that there is no reason behind it, and therefore rules that a Talmid Chacham can eat garlic in his own home; However, other reasons were given for this custom, either because it grew next to grain, or because it is a sharp vegetable and the one cutting it from the ground might have used a Chometz knife and rendered the garlic as Chometz.
Regarding radishes, the Rebbe Rashab said that the Tzemach Tzedek prohibited it without a reason. Some have speculated that since the radish is a sharp vegetable, the same logic as the garlic applies to it.
The custom of Ashkenazic Jewry is to refrain from eating any “Kitniyos” on Pesach, Sephardic communities have adopted the custom either partially or fully.
Various definitions are given in halachic literature to establish what is considered Kitniyos, the Alter Rebbe (Orach Chaim 453 Seifim 3-4) writes that the prohibition of Kitniyos only applies to those beans (or grains) which are cooked in water and then the dish looks like cooked Chametz grains; the reason being that people who aren’t knowledgeable would see such a dish and will make a mistake thinking that cooked Chametz grains can be consumed on Pesach.
The Alter Rebbe further writes, that the prohibition of Kitniyos only applies if the grain touched water, just like Chametz is only if the grain touched water; and adds that any grain or seed which bears no similarity whatsoever to the five Chametz grains – is permitted, and that includes all vegetables.
Among the grains prohibited are: Rice, Kasha, all beans, rice, millet, lentils, chickpeas, sesame seeds, all peas, corn, soybeans and poppy seeds.
Regarding grains that weren’t available during the time of the prohibition, there is a dispute among Halachic authorities whether they are considered Kitniyos or not, among them you find peanuts and quinoa.
Regarding quinoa, many modern day Poskim hold that it’s permitted, however according to the guidelines of the Alter Rebbe (that if it’s cooked in water like other grains, it’s Kitniyos) it would seem to be considered Kitniyos, and therefore each person should ask his Rov.
Regarding peanuts, it is interesting to note, that Rabbi Yaakov Landau OBM (who served as the Rov of the Rebbe Rashab, and later the Chief Rabbi of Bnei Brak) ruled that peanuts are not considered Kitniyos, and so ruled Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
According to the Alter Rebbe’s guidelines, it would seem that any Kitniyos which were guaranteed not to touch water since harvesting, and would be baked rather than cooked without any water would be permitted, this would allow the consuming of air-popped popcorn (as long as the corn was dried for Pesach, and without any water touching it). With regards to grains that are never cooked rather they are always roasted, it would seem that they aren’t considered Kitniyos, and that would include peanuts and sunflower seeds.
Regarding the use of Kitniyos derivatives, there are those who hold that anything which doesn’t look like the original grain – is permitted, and would allow the use of Kitniyos-sourced oils, however the Alter Rebbe seems to imply that oils derived from Kitniyos can not be eaten.
Aspartame (Nutrasweet) is made from two amino acids (aspartic acid and phenylalanine) and methanol. These amino acids are usually derived from corn, but they undergo a process which changes it completely, creating a new chemical, and many Hechsherim allow it’s use (hence, the Kosher L’Pesach Diet Coke); the same applies to Citric Acid (which is sourced from corn) and MSG (sourced from soybeans); however, since the Alter Rebbe doesn’t mention this differentiation with regards to Kitniyos, each person should ask his Rov before consuming it.
The Alter Rebbe writes (OC 467:24) that tobacco which was cured in Chometz alcohol cannot be consumed on Pesach, and should be locked in the room with the rest of the Chometz. The reason for this is, because smoking a product is an enjoyment similar to eating, and therefore it is prohibited.
Although the glue used in cigarettes is not a problem because it is not fit for the consumption of a dog, cigarette manufacturers add many additives which are edible, among them are Chometz products such as “Wheat Extract And Flour” and alcohols which can be sourced from Chometz.
The full shiur by Rabbi Shuchat about chumros