Passover is without doubt the most culinarily challenging of Jewish holidays due to its outright ban on any leavened products, hametz, which prohibits all bread together with a vast array of foods made with wheat flour, or indeed barley, spelt, rye and oats.
But alongside this prohibition is another restriction which although strictly speaking is more of a custom than a law, further restricts what food can be consumed over the holiday: kitniyot.
Kitniyot, broadly speaking, are legumes as well as corn and rice which the Medieval rabbis in Ashkenazi Jewish communities prohibited owing to their similarity – when ground – to wheat flour.
Modern food production means that many processed foods include varying amounts of kitniyot or their derivatives, such as oils from such products.
Since most Sephardi Jews never adopted the custom of refraining from kitniyot on Passover, and because a slight majority of Jews in Israel are Sephardi, it has become increasingly difficult to obtain products which are not made with kitniyot.
Numerous products have become difficult to find without kitniyot, which in recent years has led to a backlash against the custom, including rabbinic rulings and social media campaigns such as “Kitniyot Liberation Front.”
Finally, in 2007, three rabbis from Machon Shilo, an institution dedicated to the study of Jewish law and custom as practiced in Israel, issued a ruling permitting Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot.
Rabbis David Bar-Hayim, Yehoshua Buch, and Chaim Wasserman of the Machon Shilo organization argued that citizens of Israel are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi but have become “Jews of the Land of Israel,” and therefore should abide by the customs and practices of the country and not by previous customs.
Despite this ruling, many Israeli Ashkenazi Jews continue to observe kitniyot restrictions, first and foremost the ultra-Orthodox community whose rabbinic leadership has steadfastly insisted that the custom of avoiding kitniyot must be observed.
And similarly many rabbis in the religious-Zionist community also insist that the custom remain in place.
But some prominent religious-Zionist rabbis have ruled that derivatives of kitniyot, especially oils, should not be included in the prohibition.
Rabbi Dov Lior, for example, one of the most authoritative arbiters of Jewish law in the religious-Zionist sector, ruled that only kitniyot which were customarily prohibited should be included in the ban, meaning that many food products labeled as kitniyot could be consumed over Passover.
Perhaps because of the pushback against the custom, observance of it has actually waned significantly.
According to research published by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in 2019, only 53% of Ashkenazi Jews in Israel who observe kashrut abide the kitniyot ban.
The study found that even a majority of the conservative wing of the religious-Zionist sector, of which Lior is a leader, do not refrain from eating kitniyot on Passover. The only sector where it is still observed in the majority, some 71%, is among the ultra-Orthodox haredim.
Senior JPPI researcher Shmuel Rosner said at the time that, outside of the ultra-Orthodox community, the custom could die out within one or two more generations.
But Prof. Jeffrey Woolf, an expert in the history of Jewish law in the Talmud Department of Bar-Ilan University, underlines the significance of custom in Jewish life and in Jewish law, and points to historical efforts to abandon observance of the prohibition on Kitniyot as an example of the importance of preserving Jewish customs.
Woolf said that the Reform movement in Europe in the 19th century sought to “chip away” at various minor traditions to justify more substantive changes to Jewish practice in the future.
One of the customs the Reform movement deemed obsolete was the prohibition on kitniyot over Passover, which in fact created a strong backlash by the Orthodox European leadership who regarded the fight over the custom as a line in the sand which should not be crossed, explained Woolf.
“Tradition obligates because it is tradition. It is a very formative and formidable aspect of every religion and it ties you to family and to your co-religionists. And in Jewish law it has tremendous legal weight,” said the professor.
“The power and charisma of custom in traditional society is heavy. It has an aura of sanctity to it.”
Woolf acknowledged that the kitniyot custom creates difficulties especially for families of mixed Sephardi and Ashkenazi heritage, when eating at the homes of family members for example.
The professor says immigrants from Anglophone lands rarely experienced kitniyot problems in manufactured kosher for Passover foods until moving to Israel, and they also chafe against the custom.
The rise in people suffering from celiac disease as well as the rise in vegetarianism and veganism leaves those people without much to eat at all on Passover if they cannot consume kitniyot, and constitutes another demographic of “kitniyot malcontents.”
Ultimately, inter-communal marriage in Israel between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews could erode the kitniyot custom as well as other traditions relevant to only one of the two ethnic groups, says Woolf.
“This could result in a spectrum of a mixing of traditions from both sides; and so a ‘Minhag Yisrael’ (accepted tradition) might develop over time, although I don’t think it will be totally homogenized,” Woolf said.
“Something new will grow but it will take time. All religious shifts take time, and there is no question it will have an impact.”