Everything you need to know about kitniyot - opinion

Ashkenazi Jews have a custom of not eating legumes on Passover.

 SHOPPERS STOCKING up at a Jerusalem supermarket before the Passover holiday. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
SHOPPERS STOCKING up at a Jerusalem supermarket before the Passover holiday.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

With Passover quickly approaching, it might be a good time to start the discussion on kitniyot (legumes). It is the question repeatedly asked: “Do you eat kitniyot?”

Let’s start with defining what is kitniyot. According to the Orthodox Union (OU), it is an Ashkenazi minhag (custom) developed in the Middle Ages to not eat certain foods known collectively as kitniyot.

The Orthodox Union (OU) cites three reasons for the minhag: (a) kitniyot is harvested and processed in the same manner as hametz (leaven or food mixed with leaven); (b) it is ground into flour and baked just like hametz (so people may mistakenly believe that if they can eat kitniyot, they can also eat hametz); and (c) it may have hametz grains mixed into it (so people who eat kitniyot may inadvertently be eating hametz). Although there were those who initially objected to the minhag, it has become an accepted part of Passover in all Ashkenazi communities.

It is interesting to note that the OU clearly calls the prohibition of kitniyot a minhag and not a halacha (Jewish law), yet their web page on this topic has a section called “the laws of kitniyot.”

Which foods are kitniyot? Generally speaking, they 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. Peanuts are not kitniyot, but are often included as kitniyot.

A family seen during the ''passover seder'' on the first night of the 8-day long Jewish holiday of Passover, in Tzur Hadassah, April 8, 2020. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)A family seen during the ''passover seder'' on the first night of the 8-day long Jewish holiday of Passover, in Tzur Hadassah, April 8, 2020. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

Then there is the issue of derivatives, things made from kitniyot. Earlier rabbis declared that oil made from kitniyot is forbidden on Passover, but some later rabbis suggest that such oil may be permitted because some of the original reasons for the minhag don’t apply. In other words, ask your rabbi.

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. The Machon Shilo organization, as reported in The Jerusalem Post (“Passover: Is kitniyot on wane, does it presage a unified Jewish custom?” March 30, 2021), argued that citizens of Israel are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi but have become “Jews of the Land of Israel,” and consequently, should abide by the customs and practices of Israel and not by previous customs. From the point of view of creating an am echad (one nation), this is a great perspective to consider and act upon. It is such an important point of view that even the great Rabbi Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5). Kitniyot vs. non-kitniyot is a key issue creating separation.

While these respected positions have not been followed in Ashkenazi Orthodox communities, according to research published by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in 2019, only 53% of individual Ashkenazi Jews in Israel who observe kashrut abide by the total kitniyot ban.

Also, since most Sephardi Jews, as well as Jews from North Africa and elsewhere never adopted the custom of refraining from kitniyot on Passover, and because the majority of Jews in Israel are not Ashkenazi, it has become difficult to obtain kosher for Passover products that are not made with kitniyot. Therefore, during the seven-day joyous celebration of Israelite freedom, Ashkenazim are unable to celebrate eating with Sephardim and those who don’t hold by kitniyot.

THE APPROPRIATE position is that Jews should abide by the customs and practices of the country they live in. As all are agreed kitniyot is not halacha (law), another approach might be to call this minhag a foolish or mistaken custom. We then ask two questions: Is it permissible to do away with a foolish or mistaken custom? Why should one do away with a foolish custom?

To the first question: Is it permissible to do away with a foolish custom or mistaken custom? The answer: Yes! Many rabbinic authorities have ruled that it is permitted, and perhaps even obligatory, to do away with this type of foolish custom (Maimonides a.k.a. Rambam, the Rosh, the Ribash and many others).

To the second question: Why should one do away with a foolish or mistaken custom? Answer: There are many good reasons: (a) It detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods; (b) It causes exorbitant price rises which result in major financial loss; (c) It emphasizes the insignificant (rice, beans and legumes) and ignores the significant (hametz which is, by Jewish law, indisputably forbidden from the five kinds of grain); and (d) it causes unnecessary divisions between different Jewish ethnic groups.

There is only one reason Ashkenazim still hold by this custom (again, not law): Tradition! However, does a tradition or a custom outweigh the rabbinic rulings and logic laid out above? Logic and rabbinic rulings. What more could you ask for?

How about Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai? They are two well-known scholars who lived in the first century B.CE.. and were on different sides of legal rabbinic interpretations that form the way we practice Judaism to this very day.

In most cases, Beit Hillel’s opinion is the more lenient and tolerant of the two. In nearly all cases, Beit Hillel’s opinion has been accepted as normative by Halacha and is often the opinion followed by modern Jews.

According to the Virtual Jewish Library, this is because both the words of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are enduring on the conceptual level, but each has its time and place on a pragmatic level. The sixteenth-century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari) believed that in our present reality, where divine commandments must be imposed upon an imperfect world, the rulings of Beit Hillel represent the ultimate in conformity to the divine will, so we follow the more lenient rulings of Beit Hillel, while the rulings of Beit Shammai represent an ideal that is too lofty for our present state (which is why those rulings are  perceived as more strict and more confining), and can only be realized on a conceptual level. In the era of the Messiah, the situation will be reversed.

So, we must ask again, why are the Ashkenazi rabbis still holding on to a foolish or mistaken custom that is allowed to be changed by respected giants of their generation and is in keeping with following the leniency of the great Beit Hillel?

Which present gadol hador (great leader of the generation) Ashkenazi rabbi, or even the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, will discuss and rule in favor of removing this mistaken custom? It is difficult enough to be Jewish; why not make this non-halachic issue go away?

Change has precedence here. Consider that just one generation ago, peanut oil was certified kosher for Passover for Ashkenazim.

Such a change might even have some unintended benefits. For example, along with mostly one-day holidays in Israel, being able to eat kitniyot might be another incentive for North American and European aliyah. It might lead to more inclusiveness between different cultural communities within Israel. It could contribute to Israelis become more of one nation. All of which are good things.

The Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel should rule: “If you live in Israel, you may eat kitniyot or not.” In other words, keep your customs (if you want) but don’t let them stop you from sharing, learning, and adopting experiences and customs from other Jews to make you closer Israel and one nation.

Without the kitniyot issues, instead of being Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews, or Jews from Morocco, Ethiopia, or India, we would be one more step closer to simply being Jews of Israel. When we live in Israel, rabbinically and legally, we should not be Ashkenazi Jews or anything else, we should be one nation, Israel. And this small issue of kitniyot might be a good place to start.

Dear Ashkenazi rabbis, when can we get this on your calendars? 

The writer is a former NYC advertising and marketing executive. He is semi-retired but continues as an instructor at Rutgers University School of Communication & Information and as a consultant. He made aliyah in 2015 and lives in Ashkelon with his wife. Follow him on Twitter @davidslevine