Kitniyot: Not Quite Hametz

Although rice, millet, corn, and legumes are not among the five prohibited grains on Passover, Jews of European origin have traditionally avoided them during the holiday.

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Some authorities consider it obligatory to abolish a stupid custom. 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.

Reasons for Maintaining the Custom

A 700-year-old custom, however, should not be lightly abandoned. Rabbinic sources abound with warnings not to remove the boundaries set by previous generations. Indeed, many customs ultimately develop legal force. While in Israel most "kosher for Passover" products are made for people who eat kitniyot, in North America, it is almost impossible to find kitniyot products that reliably do not have hametz.

Furthermore, since most Jews in North America are Ashkenazic, there is little basis for an argument that maintaining the custom divides the Jewish community. To the contrary, wholesale abandonment of the prohibition on kitniyot might contribute to further divisiveness.

Customary Confusion

Each year, more questions are asked about kitniyot than are asked about hametz, which makes some rabbis concerned that our educational focus has lost its sense of priority. One rabbi reports how a well-meaning but ill-informed congregant "knew" that string beans were a prohibited legume, but planned on making lasagna (with regular wheat pasta) since it's flat and doesn't rise. Regular pasta is, of course, outright hametz according to all authorities (though special kosher-for-Passover pasta is sold these days).

While incidents like these argue for a re-evaluation of what is taught, they also indicate that the concerns about popular confusion are quite real. Nevertheless, the widely held and generally correct perception that the rules about kitniyot seem to change from year to year is probably the most significant factor contributing to the confusion.

Kitniyot May Not Leaven, but the Prohibition Expands

In addition to what has already been mentioned, 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.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is 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.