Thursday, April 5, 2012

Kvetching About Kitniyot

Given the meticulousness involved, one would think that the facet of Passover that annoys me most is Passover cleaning. However, I found one that tops Passover cleaning: the prohibition of kitniyot (קיטניות). On top of chametz (wheat, oat, barley, rye, and spelt) that cannot be consumed on Passover, kitniyot adds additional prohibited foods, including rice, corn, soy, lentils, buckwheat, sesame seeds, mustard, green beans, lentils, and sunflower seeds.

Since much food in 21st-century America is processed with either corn syrup or soy, it certainly makes me wonder about how excessive the prohibition is. For those who are vegetarian, such as myself, the prohibition seems all the more punitive.

It's not simply a matter of me having next to nothing to eat for Passover. The practice of kitniyot gets to me on a halachic level, as well. Some Jews prefer the mentality of "this is the way we have always done it, so I'm not going to even bother questioning it." Individuals like me, on the other hand, get a kick out of studying the legal history behind a given practice. Not only does finding out its origins give me a stronger knowledge of why we have such a practice, but I can better discern its legal status, which gives me the ability to figure out how much hold it has under the halachic system.

In the instance of kitniyot, we are dealing with a minhag (custom) practiced by Ashkenazi Jews. Prohibiting kitniyot never had a stronghold in the Sephardic community, and is thus permitted in Sephardic households. Reading the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks gave me some insight into the origins of kitniyot (p. 315-317). The first reference to the advocacy of prohibiting kitniyot does not even come until the 13th-century in Sefer HaMinhagot. The practice did not even originate as a prohibition on Passover, but for the entire year since legumes were considered "the poor man's food," and in some communities, it was considered a food eaten during mourning. Some have considered kitniyot as being similar enough to chametz that adding the strictures of kitniyot was preferable to violating the prohibition of chametz. Some were worried that chametz would be mixed in with the kitniyot.

Then we have to look to see what rabbis in the days of yore had to say. Maimonides, for instance, said that kitniyot could never become chametz because it cannot become leavened, and kitniyot was thus permitted (Mishne Torah, Laws of Chametz, 5:1). Rabbi Josef Karo, who authored the famous halachic corpus of Shulchan Aruch, also permitted the consumption of kitniyot (Orach Chayim 453:1). Rabbi Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise called the prohibition a "minhag ta'ut" (erroneous custom), whereas Rabbeinu Yerucham ben Meshulam called the prohibition a "minhag shtut" (idiotic custom [without basis]).

How does one approach the prohibition of kitniyot? Normally, a minhag would be considered equally binding as rabbinic law (d'rabanan) or Biblical law (d'oraita). However, as Rabbi David Bar-Hayim brings up, the practice is based on the misconceived notion that kitniyot is assur (prohibited), as opposed to the reality of it being mutar (permitted). As such, a minhag that is based on error or foolishness (e.g., kapparot) can simply be dropped. Just because kitniyot is permissible does not mean that it's automatically "case closed." For those who consume it on Passover, kitniyot still has to be checked to make sure that the product doesn't have chametz.

If you want to not consume kitniyot because you feel that it is minhag avoteinu, Torah hu (the custom of our forefathers is Torah) or prefer the chumra (legal stricture), that's fine. I'm not here to dictate how you should go about celebrating Passover. However, the main point I want to convey is for those who want to or do eat kitniyot on Passover, there is legal permissibility to practice such a leniency.

Whether you eat kitniyot or not this Passover, I hope that you enjoy the holiday. חג שמח!

Addendum 3/10/13: I recently read a well-written article by R. David Golinkin of the Masorti movement, and this passage summarizes up the sentiment nicely: "There are many good reasons to do away with this particular custom. It detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods. It causes exorbitant price hikes, which contradicts that 'the Torah takes pity on the people of Israel's money.' It emphasizes the insignificant (legumes) and ignores the significant (chametz from the five types of grain). It causes people to scoff at the commandments; if we observe this custom that has no purpose, there is no reason to observe other commandments. And finally, in Israel it causes unnecessary divisions between Askhenazim and Sephardim."


  1. minhag of shtut. --another feel good restriction chumra to keep people attention away from things that really matter in Torah.