Rabbi Wein.com The Voice of Jewish History

Rabbi Wein’s Weekly Blog
 Printer Friendly


Even though the Jewish world is now barely recovering from the annual Chanuka onslaught of latkes and sufganiyot, I am nevertheless going to write about another food and its appearance in Jewish history. I was inspired to do so by the words of a noted Israeli politician and then cabinet minister who recently voted against the Israeli government's proposed budget for 2005. He justified his vote and the subsequent inevitable loss of his cabinet position by stating in his usual elegant and sensitive manner that he could not vote for a budget that allowed "rabbis to eat kneidlach." This left me two choices about which to write. Either I would discuss rabbis or kneidlach. Since kneidlach are much more tasty, I have decided to write about them. We all need a little cheer in the hope that spring, and with it Pesach, is somehow on the way while we are still in the dead of winter.

Kneidlach are matzo balls, made from matzo meal and usually found swimming in chicken soup. On Pesach, when matzo products are naturally in vogue, there are two schools of thought and behavior regarding the permissibility of eating kneidlach. There is an opinion in halacha that holds that since the prohibition against chametz is of such a stringent nature and that the slightest amount of chametz in it renders any food forbidden for consumption on Pesach, food that contains matzo meal should not be used on Pesach. The reasoning is that the matzos from which the matzo meal was derived may not have been thoroughly baked and that a kernel of raw grain may therefore still exist in the matzo meal. When that matzo meal comes in contact with any liquid, that unbaked grain will ferment and possibly turn to chametz. This opinion therefore forbids "gebrokts" - any form of matzo itself coming into contact with liquid before being eaten. Thus one should not even break matzo into soup or dip it into sauce on Pesach. Even though this is a minority opinion in halacha and may seem to be overly stringent, it has gained wide acceptance in the Jewish world and is observed in many Jewish homes on Pesach. The Chasidic society has generally adopted this stringency (though the opinion itself predates the advent of Chasidut) and most Jews of Polish, Galician, Ukranian, Romanian and Hungarian extraction - the areas of Eastern Europe where Chasidut was dominant, refrain from "gebrokts" and kneidlach on Pesach.

The non-Chasidic society has rejected this stringency and revels in eating kneidlach on Pesach. The Lithuanian, German and other non-Chasidic communities never accepted upon themselves the custom of not eating "gebrokts" on Pesach. This split in custom has many times caused ticklish situations in families where "intermarriage" between Chasidic and non-Chasidic families has occurred. A cursory look at rabbinic responsa over the last few centuries will reveal how nettlesome the problem came to be in some instances. A noted non-Chasidic rabbi was once eating at his mother-in-law's table. The kneidlach she served were of the cannonball variety - hard, large and inedible. He excused himself from having to eat them by declaring that he never eats "gebrokts" on Pesach. Because of this statement he never did eat "gebrokts" on Pesach for the rest of his life, though he allowed the rest of his family to do so. You will notice that in the advertisements for Pesach food and tours, they all specifically state that their food is "gebrokts" or "non-gebrokts." This custom remains one of strongly held feelings and is a mainstay of differing family traditions for that great holiday.

Lithuanian housewives used to prepare kneidlach with pieces of fried chicken fat in the center of the kneidel. They gave this delicacy a spiritual name - kneidlach with a "neshama," a soul. Even regarding the most mundane things in life, such as matzo balls, Jews invested a sense of spirituality and holiness therein. The filling was not just food; it was a reminder of the filling that exists within our bodies, our immortal souls. Thus the lowly kneidel came to represent lofty ideas and basic principles of Judaism and Jewish life. I can hardly wait for Pesach to be upon us. As you may guess by now I am one of the rabbis who eats kneidlach.

Rabbi Berel Wein

Subscribe to our blog via email or RSS to get more posts like this one.