The Pesach Kitniyot Debate

Pesach is coming and along with concerns about friends who do – or do not – consume gebrochts (a Yiddish term referring to mixing matzah with any liquid), the debate about consumption of kitniyot moved to the top of our list.

Some of our readers may ask “what is kitniyot and why refrain from consuming it?”

According to Bayla Sheva Brenner in the last paragraph of an article titled Keeping Up with Passover Trenditions at The Orthodox Union of America OUKosher site:

Kitniyot: Ashkenasic Jews have accepted the stringency to refrain from eating products such as rice, legumes, corn, millet, and beans to avoid confusion with forbidden grains, since they, at one time, were commonly made into a flour substance for bread; also, because certain types of wheat can get mixed in with these items and it is presumably difficult to differentiate between the wheat and the kitniyot.

In an article titled Kitniyot: Not Quite Hametz at MyJewishLearning.com, Jeffrey Spitzer (Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute’s Tichon Fellows Program) traces the origin of this prohibition as well as some modern reactions to it. Mr. Spitzer begins:

There are five grains, and five grains only, that, according to Jewish law, can ferment and become hametz. These are wheat, barley, spelt (also known as farro), oats, and rye. These are also the only grains that can be made into matzah. Traditional Jewish law forbids eating, owning, or deriving benefit from these five grains in any amount and in any form throughout the holiday (other than when they are baked into matzah).

…[In addition to rice, millet and legumes] Items that have been considered prohibited by some community or other include peas, caraway, fennel seed, mustard, garlic, corn, soybeans, and peanuts. Another way in which the customary prohibition has expanded has been to limit the use of derivatives of kitniyot, including derivatives that could not be confused with grain or flour, like soybean oil and peanut oil.

Potatoes provide an interesting contrasting case. Unlike peas, potatoes do make a flour that is used quite effectively in Pesachdik (Yiddish for “Kosher for Passover) cakes and brownies. Nevertheless, potatoes are not prohibited. Indeed, one of the leading halakhic (Jewish legal) authorities of the 20th century, Rav Moshe Feinstein, has argued that potatoes were initially not prohibited because they simply weren’t known in Europe. Once they became known, they weren’t prohibited because there were early authorities that considered the kitniyot prohibition a “foolish custom.” On this basis, Rav Feinstein permitted peanuts; he also permitted peanut oil with the additional reason that it was a derivative.

According to this line of thinking, items that were traditionally prohibited could continue to be prohibited, but there was no basis for expanding upon the list of prohibited items (Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim 3. 63).

Mr. Spitzer explains that the ban on kitniyot didn’t exist before the 13th century and at that time it was enacted for fear that people might confuse rice or millet use with permission to partake of the five grains.
Personally, I don’t know any Orthodox Jew today who would be faced with such confusion.

A Rabbi in Cleveland once explained to us that one reason for the ban in centuries of old had been that the sacks used to collect wheat were also used to collect rice, millet and beans.
In our modern day packaging plants this is no longer an issue. So why did our frum neighbors accept such restrictions on themselves and more importantly why should we? His response was that we should follow the custom of the neighborhood we live in to keep peace. Forget about the fact that at the time, for health reasons, I was limited to a vegetarian + fish, non-dairy, non-wheat, non-processed sugars/foods diet and soy was my main staple!

There are Talmudic sources to the contrary of adding such restrictions:

“Our Mishnah [which defines the five grains that can leaven and can therefore be used for matzah] disagrees with R. Johanan b. Nuri, who holds: Rice is a species of grain, and one is punishable for [eating it in] its leavened state. For it was taught: R. Johanan b. Nuri prohibits rice and millet, because it is close to leaven” (Bavli Pesachim 35a).

Here, the Talmud points out that Johanan b. Nuri’s approach disagrees with the Mishnah. A later Talmudic discussion mentions that the amoras (rabbis of the third to sixth centuries) R. Huna and Rava used to put rice on the seder plate, from which behavior, Rav Ashi concludes, “We do not pay attention to the opinion of R. Johanan b. Nuri” (Bavli Pesachim 114b).

More than 50 different sages rejected the ban, including:

Rabbenu Yeruham ben Meshullam (Provence, 14th century) said “those accustomed to not eating rice and various kinds of cooked kitniyot on Pessah abide by a stupid custom which makes it harder on themselves (to observe and enjoy the festival) and I have no idea why they do so”.

Rav Yaaqov ben Asher rejected the custom, saying “it is an excessive restriction and improper”.

Rav Zvi Hirsch Ashkenazi known as “Zvi the Wise One” (1660-1718) and his son Rabbi Yaaqov Amdan (1697-1776) opposed the custom with all their might and wanted to eliminate it. They called it “a restriction that has no rhyme or reason for ever existing”.

The 18th century Rabbi Jacob Emden wrote that he would have abolished the custom had he had the authority to do so.

In the 19th century, R. Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar (ethics) movement in Lithuania, ate kitniyot on Passover in public during a time of scarcity, dramatically demonstrating that kitniyot were not the same as hametz (which he clearly did not permit).

Although scarcity has not been a serious issue in recent times, modern arguments against the custom do focus on how the custom raises the cost of observance, how it detracts from the joy of the holiday, and how it divides the Jewish community, especially in Israel, where there is a significant split between Ashkenazic Jews who observe the custom and Sephardic Jews who do not.

Mr. Spitzer warns:

People should be aware that someone who does not eat kitniyot may still eat from the dishes of someone who does eat kitniyot. It is appropriate to be strict on Passover; it may not be appropriate to make “little things” into such a big thing that it separates Jew from Jew.

Similarly, a Jerusalem Post article titled The Sephardi Perspective: The Kitniyot debate: between tradition and unity, by Ashley Perry (Perez) raises the unity issue:

The problem arrives when people associate kitniyot with outright hamezt, which obviously no Jew may eat during Pessah. I have often seen many Ashkenazi Jews recoil when seeing a Jew eating humous on Pessah and will not even sit at the same table with them. Firstly, they are missing the point of Pessah and secondly they are ignoring a very serious ruling about unity.

Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechaveh Da’at 5:32) rules that an Ashkenazi Jew may eat non-kitniyot food at a Sephardi Jew’s home on Pesach. He does not require special utensils that have not been used for kitniyot for the Ashkenazi guest. He bases his opinion on a similar ruling of the Rama (Orach Chaim 453:1), the main decisor for Ashkenazim who states “It is obvious that if kitniyot fell into food during Pessach, they do not render the food forbidden post facto.”

Sadly many observant Ashkenazim will not visit the homes of Sephardim during Pessah because of these unnecessary strictures. Pessah, amongst certain Ashkenazim, seems to be an occasion where many will seek to bid to outdo the next on their strictures. Some won’t eat fruit because of the chemicals that were used to grow them. Some will only eat Maza in a bag lest some liquid spill and make it ‘rise’. I have even heard of some Jews who will not spit during Pessah just in case the spittle should land on Maza and make it rise.

In 2007, the Beit Din of Machon Shilo (religious court providing concrete halachic guidance for the application of Torath Erets Yisrael as part of the authentic Jewish lifestyle for Bnei Erets Yisrael), issued a religious ruling permitting all Jews in the Land of Israel to consume Kitniyot during the Pessah holiday. The signatories to this ruling were Rav David Bar-Hayim (President of Machon Shilo), Rav Yehoshua Buch, and Rav Chaim Wasserman (Rabbi Emeritus, Young Israel of Passaic-Clifton, NJ, Jerusalem, Israel), all of Jerusalem.

“We learn from the Mishnah and the Talmud that customs are connected to a particular place. When one moves permanently to another locality, one is to adopt the local custom,” explains Rav Bar-Hayim. “The custom of abstaining from eating Kitniyot during Pessah has never been the prevailing practice among all Jews in Eretz Yisrael, and is therefore not binding upon Jews living in Israel. A person may choose to continue adhering to his custom, but no one has the right to force his custom on others.”

I feel for the Ashkenazi woman I met in the grocery store last week who was struggling over the decision of which of the 8 varieties of kosher for Pesach mayonnaise were acceptable for her to buy. She just moved here a month ago and phoned a relative who has lived here for 10+ years for assistance. The issue had to do with which oil was permissible and although the mayonnaise made with soy would have been the healthiest choice (after the one made with olive oil that she didn’t like the sound of), she chose the one made with canola oil and suggested I do the same. When I explained that my husband is a chemical engineer who did quite a bit of research on canola oil when it was first touted as “the healthy choice” and concluded there is no such plant as a canola and that canola is made from genetically modified rapeseed, she put the jar down, wished me a happy Pesach and said something about importing mayonnaise from another country.

It is important to understand that products containing kitniyot for sale as Kosher for Pesach have received rabbinic inspection and are certified free of hametz.

The Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative code of rabbinic law, states that a Jew moving to a new area should adopt the customs of the new community rather than cling to the old ones. I suppose that was the basis for our Cleveland Rabbi’s ruling 5 years ago. And that is the same foundation upon which we, now living in Israel, base our decision this year to no longer accept the ban on kitniyot. Call us Orthodox Passover Rebels if you like, but those of you who know us well have learned that we are never satisfied with the status quo – driven to review the sources for ourselves.
(Our apologies to those of you from the “we’ve always done it this way” camp who may be upset by this article.)

Chag Kasher v’Sameach Pesach to All!
The Hesslers

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3 thoughts on “The Pesach Kitniyot Debate”

  1. Thank you Tehilla, for this well-researched piece. We, also new-ish immigrants to Israel, have reached the same conclusion. I hope this will give koach to others to join us in the kitniot-restriction-rejection camp. Chag sameach!

    1. Hi all. I appreciate the article very much as I am a bit of a disestablishmentarian myself and you may have a perfect right to disregard the minhag not to eat kitniyot. HOWEVER, being a rabbi who has studied the issue of minhagim in great depth I must say that the reasoning you are using is faulty. If you are Ashkenazi, your halachic “community” is the Ashkenazic community of Israel and not the Sefardic one. To my knowledge the prevalent minhag of the Ashkenazic community in Israel was and is to observe the kitniot stringency. If an Ashkenazi wants to follow a Sefardic custom, he/she must decide to join the Sefardic community completely which would entail following all Sefardic customs including changing your prayer to nusach Sefaradi.

      1. Shalom Rabbi Poupko,

        I apologize for the delay in responding to your comment but I am just now seeing it. Thank you for reminding me about this article! Almost Eden is not an active blog as I haven’t had time to keep up with it recently, so you were reading an article I wrote years ago.

        It’s interesting that you assume I am Ashkenazi, I am not. Nor am I Sephardic. I am a convert to ORTHODOX Judaism – Cleveland Beit Din – and did not accept upon myself the minhagim of either camp as I planned to make Aliyah and did a few years later. I disagree with your logic, but respect your right to cling to your minhagim.

        As a rabbi, I am sure that you are aware that The Shulchan Aruch states that a Jew moving to a new area should adopt the customs of the new community rather than cling to the old ones. That was the basis for a Cleveland Rabbi telling us that we should respect our neighbors and not have kitniyot in our home. Because my health problems would have put me in the same situation as the Jews of Europe had the rabbis of their time rightfully also banned potatoes, a compromise was made and I did have soy products in my home during Pesach, however, I did not invite anyone to dine with us. Bottom line: I did not accept the minhag upon myself, nor did my husband on himself.

        We reject any minhag observed in Israel today that has it’s foundation based on conditions of life in the galut that do not exist in Israel – and especially those that cause division between Jews, and those rulings declared by rabbis clinging to the galut even to this day (as generations of their followers remain attached to the gentiles instead of their brethren). The nation has not yet achieved the status of the “Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation”, but when it does under Mashiach’s leadership, I assure you that there will not be a ban on kitniyot!

        Chag HaAzmaut Sameach!

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