When little things become
It’s time for a confession. My name is Helen, and I eat kitniot. There, I’ve said it. I hope people will still say hello to me in shul… To most British Jews, myself included, kitniot is a fairly recent concept. As a child, my family bought the limited KLP (kosher l’Pesach) range of foods available and that was what we ate. There was perhaps a vague notion that Sephardim ate rice on Pesach and Ashkenazim didn’t, but that was about the extent of it. I believe that the kitniot issue only really arose in the UK when supermarkets began to import humous and other Israeli products for Pesach, which although certified KLP, contain kitniot. Many people initially delighted in this expanded range of products, never having heard of kitniot. However, it didn’t take long before our communal Rabbis stepped in to point out the error of our humous-eating ways. The word kitniot is often translated as ‘legumes’ but this is misleading. ‘Kitniot’ is derived from ‘katan’ and literally means, ‘little things.’ This vague definition has enabled the term to be used to encompass everything from pulses and beans to sweetcorn, garden peas and even mustard seeds. As we all know, the significant mitzvah of Pesach is not to eat chametz. The gemara tells us that chametz can only come from the five grains that can be used in the production of matza (wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt), and nothing else can be chametz. Kitniot cannot become chametz and therefore may not be used for matza. According to the Rambam, even if one kneads flour made of rice with hot water, and processes it so that it rises and looks very much like regular dough, and bakes it, one may still eat this product because it is not chametz. The origins of the kitniot custom are not clear, although the two main theories seem to be that a) these foods were often made into products which resemble chametz (e.g. corn bread), or b) they were stored in the same containers as chametz and may become contaminated. A third possibility is simply that certain Rabbis had a dislike of these foods! Rabbenu Manoah (Provence, 13th century) wrote an opinion in his commentary on Maimonides (Laws of Festivals and Holidays 5:1) that, "It is not proper to eat kitniot on holidays because it is written (in Deut. 16:14) that ‘you shall rejoice in your festivals’ and there is no joy in eating dishes made from kitniot." Clearly not a humous-lover! However the custom has not been without critics from the outset. Rabbenu Yeruham ben Meshullam (Provence, 14th century) said, "those accustomed to not eating rice and various kinds of cooked kitniot on Pesach 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." Similarly, Rav Yaakov ben Asher (1269-1343) rejected the custom, saying "it is an excessive restriction and improper." Rav Zvi Hirsch Ashkenazi (1660-1718) and his son Rabbi Yaakov Amdan (1697-1776) also opposed the custom and wanted to eliminate it. They called it, "a restriction that has no rhyme or reason for ever existing." Despite their protestations, the custom shows no sign of going away, or even diminishing. Although the original custom developed in the 12-13th century, the list of prohibited foods has expanded over time, even taking in new world crops which would have been unknown to the originators of the practice. Peanuts are one example – and they are considered kitniot by some, by not all authorities. Rav Moshe Feinstein was of the opinion that peanuts are not kitniot. He reasoned that kitniot is not a halacha but a minhag (custom) and argued that a minhag cannot be extended beyond what was included in the original custom. Since peanuts were not in common use in Europe when the minhag of kitniot was instituted, there is no halachic basis to extend the minhag to include them, even if they are arguably identical to other kitniot in form and use. He also suggests that the list of kitniot was kept deliberately short because the reasons for prohibiting kitniot are weak.
Published on Mar 14, 2010