Passover, Rice, and the B’nei Menashe: An Interview with Rabbi Shlomo Gangte

(March 23) Some Jews, mostly Sephardim, eat rice on Passover. Others, mostly Ashkenazim, do not. The question, although long debated by the rabbis, cannot be said to have great importance for most Jews. Not so the 10,000-strong B’nei Menashe community of Israel and India, for which, at least as far as its older generation is concerned, rice is such a dietary staple that few meals can be imagined without it.


Rabbi Shlomo Gangte, one of the community’s three Israeli-trained rabbis, agreed to be interviewed on the subject by our Newsletter. Back for the Passover holiday from Paraguay, where he works as a kosher slaughterer and Kashrut inspector, Rabbi Gangte spoke to us from his family’s home in Bet El in Samaria. Here is a digest of our conversation:


Newsletter: Welcome home, Rabbi Gangte! Let’s talk about rice and Passover.

Rabbi Gangte: What would you like to know?


Newsletter: Let’s begin by asking whether the dispute over eating rice on the holiday is a question of Jewish law or of Jewish custom.

Rabbi Gangte: It’s basically one of custom. The law is clear on the matter. Rice on Passover is not forbidden. There’s an explicit ruling to that effect in the Mishnah, in the tractate of Pesachim, where it is written that five types of grain, wheat, barley, emmer, rye, and oats, are forbidden on Passover and two others, rice and millet, are permitted.


Newsletter: Then why should there be a dispute about it?

Rabbi Gangte: There already was one in Talmudic times. In a discussion of the passage from Pesachim in the Gemara [the second and longer part of the Talmud that is a commentary on the Mishnah], one rabbi, Yochanan ben Nuri, states that rice and millet should be forbidden too, because while they do not ferment fully when wetted like the other grains, they do ferment partially. But the Gemara makes it clear that the majority ruled against him.


Rice stalks
wheat stalks

Newsletter: Then why are some opposed to the eating of rice on Passover?

Rabbi Gangte: For two reasons. The first is the rabbinic principle of s’yag la-torah [literally “a fence around the Torah”]. One refrains from doing certain things even though they are permitted because it might lead to doing other things that are forbidden. In the case of rice, Jews who don’t know better might see an observant Jew eating it and think. “If rice is a grain and it’s all right to eat it on Passover, it must be all right to eat all grains.”


Newsletter: And the second reason?

Rabbi Gangte: The second reason has to do with agricultural practice. There are parts of the world, particularly in Asia, where rice, which is grown in the monsoon season, is double-cropped with wheat, which needs less water and is grown in the dry season. When rice is harvested by hand, in the traditional manner, there is less danger of stray wheat stalks getting into it, because the harvesters know the difference. But when it’s done mechanically, as is more and more the case, it’s impossible to keep the stray wheat out. Not only that, but the same machines that mill the rice are also used to mill wheat. They’re full of wheat dust.


Newsletter: And that would contaminate the rice for Passover?

Rabbi Gangte: It’s impossible to be too careful. The Torah says that the punishment for not observing the Passover properly is karet. There are two interpretations of what the word means. One is that the sinner won’t live out his appointed days, while the other is that he will be denied life in the World-to-Come. In either case, it’s the most fearful of all biblical punishments. Why run the risk of courting it?


Newsletter: But Sephardi tradition nevertheless permits rice on Passover. Is this because those following it lived in rice-producing-and-consuming regions such as the Middle East, while rice was never grown and rarely eaten by the Ashkenazim of central and eastern Europe?

Rabbi Gangte: No doubt. Yosef Karo [the author of the Shulhan Arukh, the authoritative compendium of Jewish law written in the 16th century], who confirmed the Mishnah’s ruling in his book Bet Yosef, was a Sephardi. But he lived before the age of mechanized agriculture, and even in his time, not all Jews who observed Sephardi traditions ate rice on Passover. There were Moroccan and Iraqi Jews who didn’t. And there are B’nei Menashe who don’t either, even though most of them do.


Newsletter: Is this because Shavei Israel saw to it, starting with the early years of this century, that the B’nei Menashe community followed Sephardi practices? If rice is so important to it, didn’t Shavei show foresight in insisting it identify as Sephardi?

Rabbi Gangte: The B’nei Menashe’s eating rice on Passover didn’t start with Shavei. Even before then, when Rabbi Eliyahu Avichayil was the community’s mentor, rice was eaten by it on Passover, too. Though he himself was an Ashkenazi, Rabbi Avichayil didn’t object to this. He taught us that the rule of the thumb in Judaism is that one follows the practices of one’s ancestors, and since the B’nei Menashe had no immediate Jewish ancestors, they should feel free to choose the permissible practices best suited to them.


Mepoh, a traditional B’nei Menashe meat and rice stew

Newsletter: Yet you yourself abstain from rice like an Ashkenazi!

Rabbi Gangte: Yes, as a matter of s’yag la-torah. The more distance one puts between oneself and possible wrongdoing, the better.


Newsletter: What would you say to someone from the B’nei Menashe community who came to consult you about the matter?

Rabbi Gangte: I would say, “It’s better to abstain from rice, but if you find it truly difficult to get along without it for the days of the holiday, go ahead and eat it. Just be sure to sift it before cooking at least three times to make sure no wheat has gotten into it.”


I would also add, though, that getting along without foods we’re used to, such as bread, is an intrinsic part of Passover. It’s a holiday of renewal, of casting off old habits and starting anew. There are enough other things to eat on it besides bread and rice. Passover is a holiday of liberation, of habits we can liberate ourselves from, too. And it’s also a holiday of redemption. Now that we are on the verge of being redeemed from the plague of Corona, as Israel was redeemed from Egypt and its ten plagues, we still must await the greater Redemption that lies ahead.