Newton Centre Minyan
Drash on Second Day Pesach 5757
by Richard J. Israel

Copyright © 1997 Richard J. Israel. All rights reserved. Do not distribute without this copyright notice.
Delivered: 23rd April 1997

Kitniot Revealed

Since at the last minute Martin was in urgent need of a speaker, and would have been hard pressed to do without me, I have indulged myself and selected a topic which, probably for very good reason, has never before been addressed in this minyan and may never be addressed again. I should like to discuss the single issue I am asked about most during Pesach -- the burning question of kitniot.

There are two major mitzvot with which we are obligated on Pesach. One is to eat matzah on the first night. The other is not to eat chametz

The gemara tells us that matzah can be made from five types of grain and only these five: They are wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt. (I must confess here that I have never seen a spelt in my life and if awakened in the middle of the night and asked about it, I would tell you that it is a kind of smoked fish. I have recently read in the Boston Globe that spelt is really a sweet, nutty and expensive grain used in Italian cooking and sold in fancy food boutiques under the name of farro.) Most of us have seen only wheat matzah, but oat and spelt matzah is made for those allergic to wheat.

The gemara then continues and tells us that chametz can only come from stuff that could have been used in the production of matzah, the five grains. Nothing else can be chametz. Rice, millet and kitniot (which I will get to in a moment) cannot become chametz and therefore may not be used for matzah. And according to the Rambam, even if one kneads flour made of rice with hot water, and bakes it and processes it so that it rises and looks very much like regular dough, one may still eat this product because it is nevertheless not called chametz.

In general, kitniot are those small (kitniot - from katan) seeds or beans which look a little like grains and which need to be cooked to be eaten. Though frequently translated as legumes, aside from peas and peanuts, they are NOT legumes. And some legumes, like alfalfa leaves which can be used for salad, ARE NOT kitniot. Legumes are plants whose root nodules make nitrogen. Since "teensy-weensies" or "tinies" are not translations that are very likely to make it into ordinary English parlance, the most appropriate translation for kitniot, it seems to me, is kitniot.

By the 18th century a halachist like the Korban Nathaniel (you have never heard of him) writes that there is no need to outlaw these cooked products just because they may appear similar to other cooked products which are actually chametz. One may, for example, use flour made from lentils, because it cannot become chametz, and there is no need to worry that people will confuse it with other flour which is really chametz. However, Ashkenazic (though not Sephardic) Jews have accepted a great stringency regarding these products, despite the fact that they are not chametz, and despite the permissibility of these items documented by earlier sources. The reason for the prohibition is based on a gezeirah, a preventive decree, from Ashkenazic rabbinical authorities.

The familiar and relatively late explanation for this gezeirah goes exactly contrary to what the Korban Nathaniel says. The gezeirah was justified on the grounds that people can too easily confuse a product cooked with kitniyot, with a similar product cooked with one of the five grains, and if the kitniyot product is allowed, one may come to allow a grain product, which is really chametz, as well. Moreover, kitniyot are similar to the five grains in other ways too, including the fact that some people make bread out of kitniyot as they do from the five grains, and people who are not knowledgeable may end up making a mistake and eat real chametz.

Kitniyot are not like other vegetables which are allowed on Pesach because vegetables will never get confused with the forbidden grains, but most any product which could conceivably be confused with the forbidden grains has been added to the list of kitniot. Mustard was added since it is said, that it often grows with or is harvested with or is stored with the five grain species. And then sesame seeds and caraway seeds and still further, most any seeds which people eat. Coffee was considered for prohibition, but the Ashkenazic sages must have liked coffee a lot more than they liked caraway seeds and it was allowed. And don't ask why we are permitted potato flour, because I don't know. The closest I can come to an explanation is noting that when there was a famine in Furth Germany in 1771, potatoes, which were otherwise prohibited on Pesach, were permitted on an emergency basis. Maybe someone forgot to cancel the prohibition. If so, we should keep quiet about it lest the people who like prohibitions find out that they have missed one.

How does the literature do away with the earlier permissions for kitniot? That argument generally says that in the good old days, when people knew all the halachot properly, it was safe to eat kitniot, but today, given our ignorance and lack of piety, we must not eat them. It is all very curious. Our rabbis were very worried about whether we might mistake a caraway seed for a flour product, but no one seems to have any concerns about whether Jews will become puzzled about pesadig noodles or pancake flour.

At least one 14th Century commentator, the Hacham Manoach of Provence (whom I heard about for the first time in the process of preparing this d'var Torah), takes a different tack, which suggests that he thought that the earlier argument a little weak. He says that we are obligated to rejoice in our festivals (v'Samachta b'Hagecha) and how can you rejoice if you have to eat all those seeds and beans! Hacham Manoach was clearly not part of the granola crowd.

Jacob Emden, a major 18th century Ashkenazic authority, objects strongly to this custom of restricting kitniot, complaining that because people don't eat kitniyot, they have to bake that much more Matzah, and people simply are not sufficiently careful when baking so much Matzah. Not eating kitniot will lead to unacceptable leniencies with serious prohibitions, the eating of real chametz. He then adds that his own father, the Hacham Tzvi, also objected strongly to prohibiting the eating of kitniot and said that both he Emden and his father would have abolished the prohibition but they thought they had insufficient clout. Emden then expresses the desire to join with someone else who would be able to do away with this custom to refrain from eating Kitniyos on Pesach. Alas, he found no takers. (He should have asked me.)

The Kaf HaChaim who disagrees, responds to Emden and his supporters, noting that even among Sefardim, who generally eat kitniot, there are those in Yerushalayim who do not eat rice because it once happened that some wheat was found in a cooked rice product. And because of this tale, to this day, there are many Sefardim who do eat kitniot but do not eat rice.

Though there is no real list of certified authentic kitniot, today's "what-observant-Jews-do-not-eat" kitniot list continues to grow. Current Ashkenazic practice is generally, not to eat kitniot or oils made from kitniot -- though one would be hard pressed to confuse these oils with chametz. There are linguistic reasons that some foods have been added to kitniot and declared forbidden. Many don't eat green beans because green beans sound like dried beans. Corn was unknown to our sages. It is a New World crop, but the Indo-European word for bread or wheat and the Yiddish word for rye is Korn and lest people get mixed up --- and you know the rest. Wild rice, neither wild nor rice, but a grass, sounds like rice. Soy beans, were presumed to be like other beans that were prohibited earlier. Of peanuts, another modern crop, some say yes, some say no but given the Gresham's law of contemporary halachah, that a prohibition always drives out a permission, each year you know fewer and fewer observant Ashkenazic Jews who eat peanuts or peanut derivatives during Pesach.

There is actually a kind of inner logic about what is happening. Since the original list seemed capricious, there has been a slow movement over the years to ban all small seeds so as to make the original gezeira at least appear consistent

To my astonishment, I recently received a decision from some very right-wing authorities that quinoa IS permissible on the grounds that it is not botanically related to any other kitniot and in fact is a fruit. If you are not familiar with it, it is a rather sweet, nutty flavored South American grain that our family likes to eat throughout the year (Go to Bread and Circus, folks.) so that is one you might consider eating for Pesach though if you don't give it a try soon you can be reasonably sure that within a few years it too will get prohibited by someone in a very black hat.

The Israeli rabbinic scholar Yisrael Ta-Shma does not believe in the reliability of the basic arguments about kitniot originating in their being like grain. He cites a series of 12th century sources which say that kitniot may be eaten on Pesach AND ON OTHER DAYS OF YOM TOV, particularly if you put them in boiling water.

Ta-shma raises the question of what the "OTHER DAYS OF YOM TOV" have to do with kitniot as we know the term. Why should we care about kitniot on "other days of Yom Tov"? He then quotes other early sources which say that you may grind kitniot with a little mortar and pestle, but not a big one, i.e. that kitniot are those grains which are not too big to be ground on Yom Tov, including Pesach. Early authorities felt that if you cooked them in boiling water, they would be soft enough that you wouldn't have to grind them with a big and prohibited grinder, since serious grinding is prohibited on Yom Tov.

By the 13th century there seems to be a great deal of puzzlement about what fermentation is, what ferments and what does not, and is all fermentation the same. Though in theory, only the five grains can ferment and become chametz, to the ordinary observer when you mix either grains or kitniot with eggs or fruit juices, the same process seems to take place and that phenomonon became a great source of controversy. Those who held that the five grains could become chametz from eggs and juice began to worry about whether kitniot could too. Rabbaynu Tam goes against almost all of his predecessors and joins arguments, on the basis of parallel phrases, about mixtures of chametz and kitniot which could become chametz, and plain kitniot which could not. He says that maybe kitniot can become hametz or at least are similar enough to a lot of things that do, and prohibits them. The other subject, grinding on Yom Tov, gets lost and for the first time, the category of kitniot is applied exclusively to Pesach and prohibited. Ashkenazi Jews have been burdened by Rabbaynu Tam on Pesach ever since. Convincing or clear? No, but it is the best there is.

The Conservative Movement in Israel (but only in Israel) has tried to bite the bullet and go Sefardi. The following was published last month.


Question: In light of the ingathering of the exiles, would it be possible to eliminate the Ashkenazic custom of not eating kitniot on Pesach?


1) In our opinion it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to eliminate this custom. The custom is in direct contradiction to an explicit decision in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 114b) and is also in contradiction to the opinion of all the sages of the Mishna and Talmud except one (R. Yochanan ben Nuri, Pesachim 35a and parallels). It also contradicts the theory and the practice of the Amoraim both in Babylonia and in Israel (Pesachim 114b and other sources), the Geonim (Sheiltot. Halakhot Pesukot, Halaktiot Gedolot, etc.) and of most of the early medieval authorities in all countries (altogether more than 50 Rishonim!).

2) This custom is mentioned for the first time in France and Provence in the beginning of the thirteenth century by R. Asher of Lunel, R. Samuel of Falaise, and R. Peretz of Corbeil - from there it spread to various countries and the list of prohibited foods continued to expand. Nevertheless, the reason for the custom was unknown and as a result many sages invented at least eleven different explanations for the custom. As a result, R. Samuel of Falaise, one of the first to mention it, referred to it as a "mistaken custom" and R. Yerucham called it a "foolish custom".

3) Therefore, the main Halachic question in this case is whether it is permissible to do away with a mistaken or foolish custom. Many rabbinic authorities have ruled that it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to do away with this type of "foolish custom" (R. Abin in Yerushalmi Pesachim, Mamonides, the Rosh, the Ribash, and many others). Furthermore, there are many good reasons to do away with this "foolish custom": a) It detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods. b) It causes exorbitant price rises which result in "major financial -loss" and, as is well-known, "The Torah takes pity on the people of Israel's money". c) It emphasizes the insignificant (kitniot) and ignores the significant (hametz which is forbidden from the five kinds of grain). d) It causes people to scoff at the commandments in general and at the prohibition of hametz in particular - if this custom has no purpose and is observed, then there is no reason to observe other commandments. e) Finally, it causes unnecessary divisions between Israel's different ethnic groups.

On the other hand, there is only one reason to observe this custom: the desire to preserve an old custom.

Obviously, this desire does not override all that was mentioned above. Therefore, both Ashkenazim and Sefardim are permitted to eat legumes and rice on Pesach without fear of transgressing any prohibition.

4) Undoubtedly, there will be Ashkenazim who will want to stick to the "custom of their ancestors" even though they know that it is permitted to eat kitniot on Pesach. To them we recommend that they observe only the original custom of not eating rice and kitniot but that they use oil from kitniot and all the other foods "forbidden" over the years, such as peas, beans, garlic, mustard, sunflower seeds, peanuts, etc. Thus they will be able to eat hundreds of products which bear the label "Kosher for Pesach for those who eat kitniot." This will make their lives easier and will add joy and pleasure to their observance of Pesach.


I think that I personally would very likely accept this p'sak in Israel, where a very large percentage of the population eats kitniot. At least I would try and see how it felt. But it doesn't work here, and so the Conservative poskim (halachic authorities) held, because the overwhelming majority of the observant American Jewish community is Ashkenazic. Furthermore, WE can't easily buy kosher l'pesach food WITH kitniot but WITHOUT chametz. THEY can. If we buy kitniot, like peanut butter, or tofu, the chances of our getting chametz along with it, are large.

So what do we do? Whenever people ask me what standard of kashrut to adopt, in general my recommendation is to look to your friends and the people who keep kosher about whom you care, and use them as your standard. The notion that you want to keep kosher so that everyone will be able to eat at your house is hopeless. There is no way to keep kosher so that EVERYONE will be able to eat at your house. And besides, there may be some people you don't want to be able to eat at your house.

Though I try very hard not to pasken for anyone, if you were to ask me, "As an Ashkenazi Jew, should I eat kitniot on Pesach?" I would say no. Most Passover-observing Ashkenazi Jews don't eat kitniot. If you want to be part of their club, don't eat kitniot.

But don't get tied up in knots about the subject either. I don't think God cares whether or not you eat kitniot but that practice happens to be part of the way our community has chosen to make Pesach special since the thirteenth century. As silly as it sometimes seems, mostly it works. But if you do eat kitniot, take comfort in knowing that even to the most frum, it doesn't make your house chametzdik, only suspect.

Sherry insists that Pesach is about taming the impulses of spring.

Now I don't know if not eating kitniot tames many of my spring impulses, but when I realize that many of the communities that do eat kitniot on Pesach also refrain from eating poultry during this season, I conclude, as a Jew who eats dead animals on Shabbat and Yom Tov, that refraining from kitniot on Pesach but getting chicken and turkey in return is at least a reasonable trade off.

Hag samayah!

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