What foods are prohibited during Passover?
Passover, which is being observed this week, is the holiday that celebrates Jewish freedom from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. Because the Jews fled so quickly, they didn’t have time to prepare leavened bread. As a memorial to this, according to Exodus 12:17, “And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread.” But how this is observed is interpreted differently both by the three major branches of Judaism–Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform–and the two major ethnic groups: the Ashkenazim of central and eastern European extraction, and the Sephardim, originally from Spain and Portugal. (Explainer is now wondering why she thought this would be an easy Explainer.)
The Orthodox and Conservative movements both prohibit any foods made from barley, oats, rye, spelt, and wheat. The Reform movement leaves it up to each individual to decide how to observe dietary rules. Ashkenazic Jews are also not supposed to eat corn, legumes, millet, or rice. Sephardic Jews can. Everyone can eat potatoes.
But aren’t matzos, the staple food of Passover, made from flour?
Yes. But kosher-for-Passover matzos are made under strictly supervised conditions in which no more than 18 minutes pass between the mixing of the flour and water and the completed baking. In that way, the dough is considered unleavened because it didn’t have time to rise.
Your last question seems to imply that not all matzos are acceptable for Passover. Could that be?
Yes. Matzos made during the year are prohibited because they are not made under such careful conditions.
If Jews are not supposed to eat anything that rises, how come they can eat matzo balls, which expand from ping-pong ball size to tennis ball size during cooking? And why are there special Passover cakes that rise when baked?
Because these are made from matzo meal, or ground matzos. The rule is once Passover matzos are baked, they are acceptable, even if they get mixed with other allowed ingredients and rise during rebaking. However, some Hasidic Jews, an Orthodox sect, forbid the eating of these products.
Can observant Jews drink Coke during Passover?
Coke is sweetened with corn syrup, which is forbidden if you’re Ashkenazi. The company, however, makes special Passover runs of the product–as does Pepsi–sweetened with sugar. Either the bottle or the cap indicates its certification with the letters: OUP (Orthodox Union Passover) or KP (kosher for Passover.) Explainer will leave the question of soft drinks and nutrition for another day.
What if an Ashkenazi Jew is married to a Sephardic Jew. Do they both get to eat rice and beans during Passover?
According to Orthodox tradition, the husband’s ethnicity would be the deciding factor. Conservative Jews should check with their rabbi.
Aren’t any grains allowed?
Yes. Some Orthodox Jews have approved the use of quinoa, a grain introduced to the United States from the Andes in the past few decades.
What treat should you just forget about during Passover?
S’mores. First of all, graham crackers are not allowed. Second, marshmallows are extremely controversial. Since the main ingredient is gelatin, derived from cow parts, there is much debate on whether kosher marshmallows have really been made from cows slaughtered in kosher fashion. To get around this, there are now marshmallows derived from fish gelatin.
Explainer thanks Arlene J. Mathes-Scharf, a kosher food expert whose Web site will answer all your Passover eating questions, Rabbi Jerome Epstein of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Emily Grotta of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.