The Tradition of Not Eating Rice on Passover
By Nachum Mohl
One of the more noticeable differences between the Ashkenazi (European Jew) and his S'fardi (Arab Country origin Jew) brother is brought to light during the Passover festival. The Ashkenazi Jew does not eat rice or legumes, where as the S'fardi Jew does. Therefore it is very difficult for an Ashkenazi Jew to visit and dine by his S'fardi friend for Passover, but his S'fardi friend can come to visit the Askenazi.
Why is this? What is the reason that the Ashkenazi Jews do not eat rice on Passover?
There are five different types of grain from which we may make matzo for the first night of Passover: wheat, oats, barley, rye and spelt. These five types of grains are the types that become chametz if left in contact with water. Matzo is a food that had the ability to become chametz; therefore we must cook it with special care that it not become chametz. Eating chametz on Passover is a very serious sin.
Rice and other legumes do not become chametz even though flour made from them may rise; it is not considered chametz. Therefore, according to the Torah, it may be eaten on Passover. So if this be so, why do we, the Ashkenazi Jews not eat rice and legumes?
Understanding a wee bit of history may help us out a bit. Somewhere during our long exile the Jews seemed to move in two directions, one was into the Arab lands and the other direction was into the European lands. Approximately one thousand years ago, the Arabs were at their zenith, but the Europeans had not begun their ascent to cultural and financial superiority. The Jews moving from country to country divided into these two groups. This was also during the time of the crusades. The physical boundaries and distances between the two cultures, together with the cultural differences cause the split between the Ashkenazi and S'fardic Jews.
Each group had its group of wise Rabbis that made the decisions and rulings for its local Jewish population. The S'fardic Rabbis did not see rice and legumes as a problem in their milling processes. It was the Ashkenazic Rabbis that saw that in their communities that rice and legumes were becoming a major stumbling block.
The problem is that rice (and legumes) is a grain-type food. It has long been sold and packaged, and handled by those factories and middlemen that handle also the wheat and the other grains. It is not uncommon when purchasing a package of rice to find another grain of something else in the package, like wheat or spelt, etc. Now unless a person is extremely careful and he checks the rice or legumes exceedingly carefully, there is a good chance that a kernel of one of the five grains may be mixed with his rice or legume dish. Now when this dish is cooked or baked, coming in contact with water will cause it to become chametz. This will cause the person to eat a dish that contains chametz.
In addition, there is another reason. It is very difficult to mill the rice with out the inclusion of any of the five grains mentioned above since rice is generally milled in mills that are used also for flour. Even when he has his rice flour and begins cooking and baking with it, another Jew may see him doing so. Since there is not a great difference between rice flour and the flour of the five types of grains that are used for matzo, the other Jew may think that it is permitted to use flour to bake and cook, just like the rest of the year.
Because of these two reasons, the Ashkenazi Rabbis have forbidden the eating of rice and legumes on Passover. This ban has been accepted by all Ashkenazi Jews. Therefore we do not eat any product that contains rice or legumes.
Interestingly enough, many of our S'fardi brethren have taken upon themselves not to each rice and legumes during Passover because they feel that it is too hard to check. The S'fardi Rabbis require them to check each kernel before cooking.
Now even though we sell or dispose of all of our chametz before Passover, since rice and legumes are not chametz, just food items that are not eaten on Passover we do not have to dispose of them. We can simply move them out of the kitchen in a marked box or cabinet until Passover passes over.
In addition, in certain circumstances, we can even use them. Chametz is forbidden to eat, own, buy or sell during Passover, rice and legumes are only forbidden to eat. We may own, buy or sell them during Passover. In other extreme cases, special permission has been given to severely ill individuals to use rice and legume produces.
This is one of those traditional differences that make Judaism a rich culture. Soon the righteous messiah will come to redeem us. We will all look with curiosity to see if he is a S'fardi or an Askenazi.
from the April Passover 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine