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The issue of kitniyot. The term meant pulses and beans in the Talmud, but now extends to include peas, certain other vegetables, peanuts, and any new food that reaches the market. It seems strange, just typical of the excessive, casuistic preoccupation with minutiae that now dominates Orthodox Jewish life and seems to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with one’s relationship with God. Can there possibly be a case for the defense?

The basic code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch itself, makes no mention of any ban on kitniyot. But the commentary on it of Rav Moshe Isserles (the Rema, 1520-1572) which is the accepted norm of Ashkenazi Jews, says that it has become the custom in Ashkenaz to be strict and not to eat kitniyot on Pesach. Sephardi Jews know no such ban.

The idea of the Biblical ban on chametz during Pesach itself is strange. Dough can rise, ferment. The ban on seems rooted in the idea that puffery, whether of grain or humans, is an unnatural state. Mystically, chametz is negativity. We need to be reminded occasionally to recognize the dangers of arrogance and to try to exclude it from our lives if we want to thrive and succeed spiritually.

But kitniyot do not “rise”. Two reasons are given for the custom. In Europe pulses were often stored with grains and taking some out of the sack or barrel on Pesach might lead one to eat forbidden produce by mistake. And in wet climates pulses sprout. This was seen as giving the appearance of chametz.

Regardless of the reason, by the sixteenth century the whole of the Ashkenazi world banned kitniyot on Pesach. The Sephardi world did not. But even strict Ashkenazis agreed that food cooked with kitniyot did not make one’s vessels chametz on Pesach, and one could eat on utensils in a Sephardi house where everyone else ate kitniyot. There is absolutely no logic for banning kitniyot, other than an error of botanical understanding, or dereliction of care, that is confined exclusively to Ashkenazi brains.

The accepted principal is that where a custom has spread universally, or throughout a specific community, it becomes the equivalent of law and is retained even where the original reason has fallen away. This is the force of “custom”. Offending against custom may not be as serious as offending against a Biblical law, but the fact is no rabbinic authority of any status will agree that any widespread custom no longer applies.

Why do logically anachronistic or paradoxical customs never disappear? In part, it is simply the “nature” of the Orthodox/Charedi rabbinate nowadays. They will happily add all sorts of excessive strictnesses, even when the Shulchan Aruch is lenient, but will never ever dream of making life easier or saying a custom no longer applies!!! All religion nowadays gives the impression of being more concerned with social conformity and belonging than anything spiritual or commonsensical. And people who live in closed or defined religious societies are too fearful of social pressure (perhaps my child won’t get into the right school or might not get a suitable “shidduch”) to dream of not doing what everyone else is.

The fact is that human beings are inconsistent, irrational, credulous, and superstitious, and are consumed with the need to conform and the desire to show off. Humans do really stupid things and think they are important. They salute flags, they put their hands on their hearts and swear allegiance, they sing banal songs in praise of their homelands or leaders, they wear silly little tokens in their lapels, ridiculous, pointless relics of bygone ages, such as neckties, kerchiefs, unnecessary buttons and buckles, and the most ridiculous felt and beribboned things on their heads, for no logic reason other than to conform or show off. They say pointless things and meaningless words such as “seeya”, “hi”, “I mean”, “like”, “don’t yer know”, and “say what”. Why? Just because others do. And in a religious context we use words like “amen” and “halleluyah” that we could dispense with and lose nothing of sense or communicative value. We are trained in some countries to eat with knives and forks and hold them in very specific ways. (One of the biggest culture shocks Europeans encounter in the USA is that hardly anyone knows how to hold a knife and fork properly.) Does all this matter? No, not really, because they are all little ways of signifying belonging to a group, a class, a culture, and we do it as reinforcement of where we want to be or with whom we want to be seen identifying with.

So much of all of human life is based on earlier cultures, social conventions and yes, even mistakes. What matters surely is not the origin but the usage. Are these strange habits beneficial? Can they add to the quality of our life, making it more meaningful and significant? I believe they do. They force us to stand back and question difference, to break or contrast patterns of behavior and to bring the spiritual into the mundane. Simply to think about what one eats is important. And if one has a yearlong habit of relating to food one way, I see nothing wrong in upping the ante over Pesach so that we try that bit harder to think about what we are doing. That, in the end, is the purpose of halacha of whatever degree of strictness. Nice moral theories and values are useless unless translated into everyday action. Ritual does not guarantee. Nothing can, because of our human nature. But I believe it helps.

Orthodoxy is such a minority interest, such a strange way of conducting one’s life, that we aficionados like to make a virtue of our craziness. We find value in almost everything. Precisely because kitniyot and similar eccentricities make no sense in the rational world, observing the rule on Pesach is a way doing something for a purely religious reason. As Tertullian said, “Credo Quia Absurdum Est.” I believe it precisely because it is absurd. Our variation is that we do it despite its seeming absurd. That is what is meant by the Biblical term “Chok”. It is a spiritual sacrifice of reason to raise our awareness of another way of looking at life.

14 thoughts on “Kitniyot

  1. thanks dear Rabbi. It is the most discussed issue at Pesach detracting from the REAL and relevant issues of freedom and learning. What was isn't and what wasn't is and it is so confusing

  2. Similarly, giving up something for lent in the Christian church, while purely a tradition, which as you rightly say reinforces our "belonging" to a said group, so also it has relevance in everyday life.
    I believe giving up a habit, behaviour or a food which is important to our day-to-day life, is a valuable exercise in self-discipline and while it may do no long-term good, it is a way of confirming that we can exercise restraint be it only for a few weeks, in what is becoming an increasingly self-indulgent world.

  3. well said Jeremy. kitniyot is a mad one for us ashki's but if used as a means of developing greater self control and therefore refining one's character for the express purpose of not always giving into the demands of our corporeal nature, then it can be called praiseworthy and "spiritual". how many people are consciously applying this kavanah to refraining from kitniyot? Errrr…. no idea. I hope many – I really hope many! I know I am trying and that's all I know. By you writing what you have written many more might tap into this idea.

    I do disagree with one thing you wrote however. You said the Charedi Rabbinate never ever make life easier whilst happily adding excessive strictnesses. Ok, you're right in a general sense but I, being a often helpless and needy Baal Teshuva, have been on the receiving end of countless dinim that have made my life and the life of my wife and family much easier. In my experience, the majority of the Charedi Rabbonim and Dayanim that I have gone to with questions have responded with a great deal of common sense and practicality. Example: I called a very renown Posek in London and asked whether my 3 yr daughter could drink rice milk over Pesach because she is dairy intolerant and we couldnt find any almond milk anywhere in Jerusalem (where we live). With he usual good humour he said "Nebach, so she'll have to eat kitniyos. Zeige zunt and chag sameach!" No drama, maximum common sense applied and all delivered with his usual warmth and love.

    We're a bonkers bunch and await a truly awesome leader that can somehow bring us all together or, by the miracle of miracles, we'll get in right by ourselves. Be'ezrat Hashem.

    Shabbat shalom


  4. Pesach sameach Jeremy. On the question of "irrational" obsessiveness, I was wondering this year about the Pesach dietary restrictions being based specifically on the HURRIED departure from Egypt, rather than the departure per se.

    Why should this alacrity be elevated into the central theme such that it dominates everything we put into our mouths ?

    Further, even allowing for this alacrity centrality, why can I not make pancakes with regular flour, since these take maybe two minutes in the frying pan versus 17 minutes for matzah ?!

    Answer, as always: Tradition !

    PS: I changed my minhag some years ago when I decided my Sefardi side fancied eating some rice !


  5. A few Rabbis I know from Masorti also say it is no where written and even say it is only a silly custome made up by the ashkenazim. In fact the Talmud says 'rice and meat is the best Pesach meal'. I eat everything except the forbidden grains in fermented form which I only have as Matzah but as I did not grow up with Judaism I don't have customs. I know the Iranian kitchen better than any European especially German. I hardly know German kitchen. I know however somebody else who was told by those Rabbis the same and he started eating kitniyot and disregarded the custom he grew up with.


  6. Kitne'ot do rise. In fact, bread-like stuff can be made from them.

    Nevertheless, it seems a strange prohibition. I prefer the "do not add or subtract from the Torah". But the Rabbis say they must erect fences. Is that to keep us in, or to keep them out? Either way seems strange.

  7. Sheila:
    Thank you too Sheila.Were living in a crazy world. Thank goodness there are a few of left who remember what it was like before the God Squad took over! Meanwhile I hope you get your computer back!! Chag Sameach

  8. >Kitne'ot do rise. In fact, bread-like stuff can be made from them.

    Stranger and stranger, isn't it? But then I guess you can make something out of everything nowadays!
    Will have to come up with some other explanation.

  9. David:
    I am delighted to hear you have found some lenient authorities in the Charedi camp.

    I can probably guess who one of them was and if I am right, he like so many others is incredibly lenient in private but hard hard line in public. To be fair support for the Eiruv was the only case I can think of where a line was actually drawn. Still there seems to be a prevailing fear of standing up to the tendency to become stricter and more irrational (which is I believe a calculated cocking a snook at modern, secular rationalist values, not I hasten to add that some reaction is not warranted ).

    Whilst I have absolutely no objection to choosing a stricter path, I do strongly object to it being implied that that is the only way to go within Halacha and the social pressure to impose refinement on the average person.
    Still it is probably true to say it has always been thus and equally true to say that there have always been cycles and changes.

    Chag Sameach

  10. Rob:

    Given your father's proud heritage as Sephardi Tahor I am surprised you EVER adopted an Ashkenazi custom. Was it you mother's insistence?

    As to 'hurried' 'Chipazon' I take that to be metaphor for life. Very often we are rushed, we lack the stability and peace of mind we crave. Life involves living in the fast and dangerous lane as well as the slow and safe one!

    Chag Sameach

  11. Sabine:
    I guess thats the difference between Orthodox and Masorti rabbis. They both know its ridiculous but the Orthodox keep it either out of loyalty or social pressure.

  12. Excellent example Ray. Scratch us and were all the same. Trouble is were too busy to scratch and to self centred to see another point of view.

  13. Qitniyos is a minhag we're "only" observing out of a sense of belonging and continuity, not reason. An idea I too embrace.

    (The date for the ban on qitniyos is before the Seifer Mitzvos Qatan, who records the custom as a given. So, it predates R' Yitzchaq of Courville, France, 1210-1280. 13th cent.)

    However, if we are doing it out of continuity, we must be equally careful not to grow the custom beyond existing limits. When I was a child, peanut oil was the norm most people cooked with.

    Peanuts are only questionably within the ban, being new-world and thus not around in the 13th century. And while peanuts are legumes, they not reducible to a porridge nor stored with grains nor farmed like grains — the leading reasons given to explain the custom. For example, in Igros Moshe, Rav Moshe recalls that people back in the Lithuania of his youth and early rabbinate would eat peanuts on Pesach.

    Oils are only questionably within the custom as well. Many communities were lenient on "mei qitniyos" — liquids derived from qitniyos.

    But today? Banning corn syrup is the primary reason for most of the items labeled unfit for Pesach due to qitniyos. And the peanut oil we made a point of buying cannot be found with "KLP" certification.

    It's ironic, because by being more stringent than our ancestors, we undermine the whole point! ("Kol hamosif goriea' — whomever adds [to the law, really] detracts [from it]."


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