Is Peanut Butter Kosher for Passover?
by Leah Koenig
As a child, I remember finding Passover frustratingly difficult. I missed spaghetti. I missed bagels and cream cheese. And more than anything, I missed peanut butter! I understood why I couldn!t have a peanut butter sandwich on the soft whole wheat bread I enjoyed the rest of the year. But not being able to slather my beloved peanut butter on matzo for a week instead? That really stung.
Passover commemorates the biblical story of the Exodus, when the Israelites were freed from generations of slavery in ancient Egypt. As the story goes, the Israelites had to leave Egypt in a hurry, and did not have time to let their daily bread rise. Instead, they quickly packed the dough onto their backs as they rushed toward freedom, and it baked under the hot sun into flat, unleavened breads we now call matzo. In commemoration of this story, Jewish communities refrain from eating chametz - leavened foods made from wheat, spelt, oats, barley, or rye - during the week of Passover.
Over the centuries, other foods got pulled into the mix. The Torah (Hebrew Bible) prohibits the consumption of chametz on Passover. But in the early Middle Ages, the great rabbis of France and Germany identified a second category of foods they called kitniyot that they said should also be avoided. These foods - like rice, corn, legumes (beans, lentils, and soybeans), and peanuts (also a legume) - were classified as closely related to chametz, and therefore potentially confusing to people trying to observe the holiday. In other words, they became forbidden by association.
The custom of not eating kitniyot flourished within Ashkenazi Jewish communities (those hailing from Central and Eastern Europe), making eating during the week of Passover especially restrictive. However, Sephardi Jews (those whose families originated in Spain and Portugal), did not take on the dietary practice, and continued to eat rice, lentils, and other kitniyot. Jewish people from two communities in particular (Iran and Curaçao) make versions of charoset - a tasty mix of nuts and fruit traditionally eaten during Passover - that includes peanuts instead of other commonly used nuts like almonds and walnuts.
Growing up, my family did not usually observe most Jewish dietary rules. But for Passover, which is such a central and symbolically significant holiday, we pulled out all the stops. In the weeks leading up to the Passover seders (the traditional holiday meals), my mother would begin her annual deep clean of our kitchen. She removed and stored away all the bread, pasta, cereal, and crackers, replacing them with boxes of matzo (unleavened bread), tinned coconut macaroons, and the pounds of potatoes that would be our primary starch for the week. She wiped down every inch of the stovetop and refrigerator until they gleamed. And, like most Ashkenazi home cooks, she refrained from cooking with kitniyot as well as chametz for the week of Passover.
In recent years, a growing number of Ashkenazi Jews began to buck against the custom of avoiding kitniyot. Eating during Passover is meant to be a little bit difficult, focusing on symbolic foods that remind us of the hardships our ancestors endured. And there is a certain freedom in having the choice to limit oneself. But some Jews began to wonder if the extra layer of burden of not eating kitniyot was really necessary. Modern food labeling makes it very easy to discern exactly what we are putting into our bodies, so the "just in case” restrictions no longer felt necessary. Meanwhile, Sephardi Jews legitimately celebrate the holiday while eating rice, beans, and other kitniyot ingredients - why couldn't Ashkenazi Jews do the same?
In 2016, some rabbis followed suit. An official statement put out by the Rabbinical Assembly (the governing body of the Conservative Movement) asserted that Ashkenazi Jews no longer had to abide by the 800-year old custom of avoiding kitniyot."In order to...present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions...we are prepared to rely on the fundamental observance recorded in the Talmud and codes and permit the eating of kitniyot on Pesah (Passover),” the statement said.
Many Jews rejoiced at this new ruling - particularly those who follow vegan or vegetarian diets, and who found the week-long restriction from legumes and beans particularly challenging. However, not all Jews were ready to abandon their kitniyot avoidance. Officials from the Orthodox Movement of Ashkenazi Judaism reminded adherents that kitniyot was still forbidden. And even for less traditionally-observant Jews, some customs die hard - especially ones that have been observed for generations. There are plenty of people who, despite the ruling from the Conservative Movement, will continue to abstain from kitniyot because that is how they grew up.
And yet, the new ruling marks a watershed shift within Jewish tradition. It acknowledges that Judaism is a living, breathing religion that can evolve to meet the shifting realities of the people who practice it. And it makes cooking and eating during the week of Passover noticeably more joyful. These days, I continue in my mother's tradition of scrubbing every countertop in my
family's kitchen until no trace of chametz remains. But next to the boxes of matzo and the potatoes in my cupboard, you can bet there will be a jar of peanut butter - for cooking up some holiday treats and making a matzo PB&J too!
As part of our celebration of Passover in 2022, Peanut Butter & Co. has made a donation to Hazon.
Leah Koenig is a food writer and author of 6 cookbooks including The Jewish Cookbook (Phaidon, 2019) and Modern Jewish Cooking. (Chronicle Books). Her writing and recipes can be found in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Food & Wine, and Tablet, among other publications. She also writes a weekly newsletter called The Jewish Table. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two children.