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To Bean, or Not to Bean?

In Israel, Passover is celebrated with spring cleaning and questions.


JERUSALEM — There's a lot more to the Passover holiday than just the Seder dinner. For most Israelis, preparations for the Festival of Freedom started at least a month ago.

Passover celebrates the ancient Israelites' liberation from slavery in Egypt. Beginning at sundown on a Saturday, it has been celebrated by Jews for more than 3,000 years. The actual holiday lasts eight days, but Israelis actually start to think about it in March.

The Bible tells us that during the Passover holiday no leavened bread should be found in our homes. Even cookie crumbs are prohibited. That means a thorough spring cleaning that can start with dusting off the books and end with renovating the entire house. It's spring, after all, and the chances of rain are getting slimmer. In fact, sales of cleaning products skyrocket to their annual peak just before Passover.

For the observant, there's getting out of storage that other set of dishes, flatware, cookware, bake ware and utensils reserved especially for the holiday, then rinsing and switching it with its secular counterparts. But only after first carefully cleaning out and relining the cabinets. Even the car gets a royal cleaning.

Since spring has obviously sprung, an entire country is putting its winter clothes away, unpacking its warm-weather wardrobe, and suddenly realizing that every family member needs something new to wear to the Seder. Add to that the fact that it's customary in Israel to exchange gifts on Passover, and you can imagine the preholiday sales, crowds, traffic jams and last-minute crush, especially in the supermarket.

Along side roads and in backyards, orange blossoms are open and fragrant, and in the markets it's the season for purple-skinned garlic, fennel, melons and strawberries, black radishes and asparagus, all providing us with a far greater selection than our ancestors could have imagined.

But there's another side of Passover I doubt those ancestors would have totally approved-the new-age Passover pasta, Passover self-raising flour, Passover wafers, cake mixes, breakfast cereals, and other Passover food clones, all made of matzo. Today, even Fido can eat kosher-for-Passover.

And I don't imagine they would really comprehend how one people managed to divide itself on the subject of beans. Here's how it happened:

In the beginning, there was the prohibition against possessing flour or eating leavened bread during Passover, made back then with wheat and barley. Rice, arriving in a later era, was permitted, but other grains mentioned in the Bible, like spelt, were also considered off-limits. But everybody ate beans, which mostly meant garbanzo beans, fava beans and lentils.

Some say it dates back to the Babylonian exile, others attribute it to the Middle Ages, but at some point, the Jewish people divided into two groups: Ashkenazic (living mostly in central Europe) and Sephardic (living around the Mediterranean). And when they did, they divided on the subject of beans.

The rabbis on the Ashkenazic side decided to outlaw beans on Passover. The way they figured it, merchants always recycled the same burlap bags used to store both grains and beans, and since they could get mixed with each other and lead you to sin, it was better to be safe than sorry. Ditto for rice, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and peanuts, and anything, even oil, soap or toothpaste, made with them. The Sephardic rabbis made no such ruling.

It might never have posed a problem if the descendants of those same Sephardim and Ashkenazim didn't have to spend Passover together in Israel today, the former ochlei kitniot (legume eaters) and the latter not. The result is confusion.

"Most of the time, hotels go according to the Ashkenazic tradition on Passover" says Haim Spiegel, corporate food and beverage manager for the Dan Hotel chain in Israel. "We don't serve beans, and we'll serve beef or chicken rather than lamb. If we get a large group of Sephardim, we reorganize the menu, adding lamb, beans and rice to our holiday dishes."

Then there are manufactured food products. At major manufacturing rivals Osem and Elite, competition for the kosher for Passover trade is fierce, since sales also rise sharply during the holiday period. "A few years ago, we decided to make our chocolates kosher for ochlei kitniot on Passover," says Ronen Zohar, marketing manager for the chocolate division of Elite. "What a mistake! We got so many complaints from Ashkenazim that we decided that we'd have to find a solution for everybody. Now there's no problem; we even have wafer cookies made of potato flour."

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