Ask the Rabbi: Chenopod conundrum

A certain amount of ambiguity and dispute relates to defining exactly which foods are included in the kitniyot category at Pessah.

Quinoa (photo credit:
(photo credit:
While it looks like a grain, quinoa is actually a chenopod, a species related to beets and spinach.
Grown primarily for its seeds, quinoa sales have skyrocketed over the last five years to make it one of Bolivia’s principal exports. Because of its nutritious content and grain-like taste, many have suggested it as a great alternative for Pessah consumption, engendering much controversy relating to a centuries-old debate regarding the propriety of eating kitniyot (legumes) on Pessah.
The sages asserted that matza and hametz share similar physical qualities, with matza being defined as a grain flour which, when combined with water, could become hametz unless it is prevented from fermenting. Only five grains may be prohibited as hametz or consumed as matza: rye, oats, barley, spelt and wheat (Pessahim 35a). Although one sage wanted to include rice in this prohibition, the Talmud ultimately excluded rice and millet as hametz (Pessahim 114b). Maimonides more broadly categorized these foods as kitniyot (including legumes, beans and lentils) which are permissible to eat even if they are ground and cooked into bread-like dough (Hilchot Hametz 6:4).
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Yet starting in the 13th century, numerous Ashkenazi authorities mention a custom of not consuming kitniyot. Different reasons were offered for this stringency. Some feared that people would easily confuse a product made from hametz for a kitniyot product, and therefore come to eat forbidden grains (Semak 222).
Others claimed that wheat crops with stunted growth look like kitniyot (Rabeinu Manoah 5:1) or, alternatively, that wheat grains get easily mixed in fields with kitniyot and will ultimately get cooked together (Haghot Maimoniyot).
Sephardi decisors rejected this custom as an excessive stringency and continued to eat kitniyot (BY OC 453). Nonetheless, some did advise sifting through rice to ensure that grains did not get mixed in (Ritva Pessahim 35a), with a couple even abstaining from all rice consumption (Kaf Hahaim 453:10). While a few medieval Ashkenazi decisors similarly demurred at this stringency, it ultimately gained widespread acceptance and was codified into Ashkenazi law (OC 453).
In the 18th century, Rabbi Ya’acov Emden desired to nullify this custom, since he felt it led to excessive demand for matza products which overwhelmed people to the point that they made mistakes with bona fide hametz prohibitions (Mor U’ketzia). This sentiment, however, did not take root among Orthodox leaders like Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, who defended the continued practice of this centuries old custom, especially against the criticisms of the Reform and Masorti movements.
All agree, however, that unlike hametz, there is no prohibition of owning or benefiting from kitniyot in other ways, such as feeding it to animals (MB 453:12). Many further argue that there is no prohibition of feeding kitniyot (including many baby formulas) to young children (Yehaveh Da’at 1:9). During famine years, several Eastern European rabbis waived this stringency (Hayei Adam 127:6), and while there were a few dissenters (Teshuva Me’ahava 259), most agreed to waive this stricture in times of need, including illness (MB 453:7). It is also important to note that Ashkenazim may eat non-kitniyot foods served in Sephardi homes, even if the hosts had previously cooked kitniyot in those pots (Shu’t Az Nidberu 8:20:4).
Some sources indicate that liquid derivatives from kitniyot products, such as oils and syrups, were included in the medieval prohibition (Nishmat Adam 33). Rabbi Yitzchak E. Spektor and others, however, contended that the process of making oil before Pessah, which would include sifting the seeds and preserving its dryness, precludes any of the concerns that led to this custom, thereby rendering permissible all such derivatives (Be’er Yitzhak OC 11).
This position led Rabbi Abraham I. Kook in 1909 to permit sesame oil, for which he was severely condemned by the Jerusalem Badatz (Orah Mishpat 108-111).
A certain amount of ambiguity and dispute relates to defining exactly which foods are included in the kitniyot category. Some products that looked like grains were prohibited, even as others were not, while mustard seeds were included because they grow in pods like beans (Taz 453:1). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, noting the difficulty in determining a definitive distinction between permitted and prohibited foods, asserted that we only follow the traditional custom and do not add new items, like peanuts (Igrot Moshe OC 3:63).
Based on that logic, many allow safflower oil, even as the recently invented canola oil remains disputed since it is modeled on rapeseed oil, which was historically assumed by some figures to be problematic (Maharsham 1:183). Similarly, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz and others permit quinoa consumption, provided that its contents are not mixed with other grains in the production plant. Others, however, discourage eating quinoa because these seeds look very similar to grains, thereby adding the latest of disputes regarding this custom.
The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.
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