In defense of the ‘kitniyot’ ban

The following is a brief explanation of this ancient practice.

April 1, 2010 02:53
4 minute read.
Yehuda Matzos. Forty tons of matza a day.

matza passover pessah 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

It is Passover, and as Jews around the world gather together to commemorate our redemption from Egypt, a new and more dubious tradition associated with the festival appears to be taking root.

Indeed, with each passing year, it seems that the murmurings and complaints about the Ashkenazi custom to refrain from eating kitniyot (legumes) during the holiday grow more vocal.

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Some observers deride the practice as outdated and archaic, pointing out that legumes cannot become hametz, which the Torah prohibits on Passover. Others bemoan the sheer inconvenience as they are forced to scour through the fine print on various food packages to ensure that the contents do not violate the prohibition.

As anyone with children can attest, one of the holiday’s most exasperating challenges is trying to explain to a preteen why he or she cannot eat his or her favorite legume-based snack even though the wrapper boldly declares it to be “kosher for Passover.”

This annual “Battle of the Bamba” has worn down many a willful parent, and even led some Ashkenazi olim to throw up the white flag and toss aside the custom altogether.

BUT AS complicated and inconvenient as it might be, I for one have no intention of giving in, and neither I think should you.

Simply put, the ban on kitniyot has gotten a raw deal. And while a newspaper column is hardly the ideal venue for exploring the complexities of the issue, here is a brief defense of this ancient practice. To begin with, we don’t know for sure when the prohibition against kitniyot on Passover originated, but we do know that it dates back at least 800 years. Scholars say that the earliest source to mention it is the Sefer Mitzvot Katan, which was written in the 13th century by Rabbi Yitzhak of Courville. It appears, then, that the custom goes back to the geonic period.

In the Shulhan Aruch, the Sephardi sage Rabbi Yosef Caro permitted the consumption of kitniyot on Passover, while the Ashkenazi Rabbi Moshe Isserles upheld the ban (Orach Chaim 453).

Down through the centuries, the custom had its detractors, including great rabbis such as the Tur and Rabbi Ya’acov Emden. But the practice took hold, and was accepted by Ashkenazi Jewry. Among the reasons given were that kitniyot were often grown in proximity to the grains used to make bread, such as wheat, oats and barley, and therefore they were frequently mixed together inadvertently.

In addition, raw and processed kitniyot could and often were confused with these other grains. As a result, people might unintentionally find themselves eating hametz, on Passover, so to forestall this possibility, kitniyot were nixed.

Modern opponents of the custom assert that such worries are a thing of the past now that we employ more modern agricultural and manufacturing techniques. Moreover, they suggest, no one is likely to fall victim to such confusion, so why not just do away with this headache once and for all?

Needless to say, uprooting a practice that is centuries-old is not something that should be done lightly or capriciously. It would be a mistake to discard the weight of history and tradition simply to make our shopping experience at the supermarket slightly more expedient.

Those who so effortlessly wish to dispose of the ban are not giving tradition its due. The preservation of customs and community practices has always played a central role in the transmission of Jewishness, and our survival as a people can be traced to our stubborn insistence on maintaining the ways of our ancestors.

IT WAS Maimonides who noted in the Mishneh Torah that the verse in Deuteronomy (17:11) which instructs us not to “deviate from anything they tell you right or left” embraces the decrees and customs passed down to us by previous generations.

And former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who permits the consumption of kitniyot on Passover, nonetheless ruled last year that Ashkenazim cannot forgo the practice (Ynet, March 15, 2009). “Everyone has their customs,” he said, adding that “those who instituted this were great men. Shall we therefore concede their customs?”

But if you still remain unconvinced, consider the following.

The word kitniyot comes from the word katan, or small. For some, this might suggest a pettiness of sorts, a maddening attention to detail and minutiae which seems out of place in our goal-oriented, fast-changing world. But we all know that it is the details which often make all the difference, whether in our own daily lives or that of the nation. And Jewish practice is built on attention to the finer points, on the intricacies and nuances that characterize various situations.

The ban on kitniyot underlines this crucial point. It draws our attention to the subtleties of our existence by reminding us of the need to keep our guard up, even when it comes to the “small” things in life such as barley or beans. In this way, I think, it helps us to keep things in their proper perspective.

Humphrey Bogart, of all people, seemed to recognize this in one of the most famous cinematic references to legumes on record. At the end of Casablanca, as he prepares to say farewell to Ingrid Bergman, he memorably declares, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Sure enough, we live in a culture where those who tear down tradition are often celebrated far more raucously than those who choose to uphold it. But when I check my labels this Passover and scrupulously avoid eating kitniyot just like my ancestors, all that fades from view. For thanks to their fidelity to tradition and their determination to live as Jews, that “hill of beans” takes on a whole new and much deeper meaning.

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