In defense of the ‘kitniyot’ ban

The following is a brief explanation of this ancient practice.

matza passover pessah 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
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.
Some observers deride the practice as outdated and archaic, pointing out that legumes cannot become hametz, which the Torah prohibits on Passover.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 mostexasperating challenges is trying to explain to a preteen why he or shecannot eat his or her favorite legume-based snack even though thewrapper boldly declares it to be “kosher for Passover.”
Thisannual “Battle of the Bamba” has worn down many a willful parent, andeven led some Ashkenazi olim to throw up the white flag and toss asidethe 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 kitniyothas gotten a raw deal. And while a newspaper column is hardly the idealvenue for exploring the complexities of the issue, here is a briefdefense of this ancient practice. To begin with, we don’t know for surewhen the prohibition against kitniyoton Passover originated, but we do know that it dates back at least 800years. Scholars say that the earliest source to mention it is the SeferMitzvot Katan, which was written in the 13th century by Rabbi Yitzhakof Courville. It appears, then, that the custom goes back to the geonicperiod.
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).
Downthrough the centuries, the custom had its detractors, including greatrabbis such as the Tur and Rabbi Ya’acov Emden. But the practice tookhold, and was accepted by Ashkenazi Jewry. Among the reasons given werethat kitniyot were oftengrown in proximity to the grains used to make bread, such as wheat,oats and barley, and therefore they were frequently mixed togetherinadvertently.
In addition, raw and processed kitniyotcould and often were confused with these other grains. As a result,people might unintentionally find themselves eating hametz, onPassover, so to forestall this possibility, kitniyot were nixed.
Modernopponents of the custom assert that such worries are a thing of thepast now that we employ more modern agricultural and manufacturingtechniques. Moreover, they suggest, no one is likely to fall victim tosuch confusion, so why not just do away with this headache once and forall?
Needless to say, uprooting a practice that is centuries-oldis not something that should be done lightly or capriciously. It wouldbe a mistake to discard the weight of history and tradition simply tomake our shopping experience at the supermarket slightly more expedient.
Thosewho so effortlessly wish to dispose of the ban are not giving traditionits due. The preservation of customs and community practices has alwaysplayed a central role in the transmission of Jewishness, and oursurvival as a people can be traced to our stubborn insistence onmaintaining the ways of our ancestors.
IT WAS Maimonides whonoted in the Mishneh Torah that the verse in Deuteronomy (17:11) whichinstructs us not to “deviate from anything they tell you right or left”embraces the decrees and customs passed down to us by previousgenerations.
And former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who permits the consumption of kitniyoton Passover, nonetheless ruled last year that Ashkenazim cannot forgothe practice (Ynet, March 15, 2009). “Everyone has their customs,” hesaid, adding that “those who instituted this were great men. Shall wetherefore 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, amaddening attention to detail and minutiae which seems out of place inour goal-oriented, fast-changing world. But we all know that it is thedetails which often make all the difference, whether in our own dailylives or that of the nation. And Jewish practice is built on attentionto the finer points, on the intricacies and nuances that characterizevarious situations.
The ban on kitniyotunderlines this crucial point. It draws our attention to the subtletiesof our existence by reminding us of the need to keep our guard up, evenwhen it comes to the “small” things in life such as barley or beans. Inthis way, I think, it helps us to keep things in their properperspective.
Humphrey Bogart, of all people, seemed to recognize this in one of themost famous cinematic references to legumes on record. At the end of Casablanca,as he prepares to say farewell to Ingrid Bergman, he memorablydeclares, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to seethat the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill ofbeans in this crazy world.”
Sure enough, we live in a culture where those who tear down traditionare often celebrated far more raucously than those who choose to upholdit. But when I check my labels this Passover and scrupulously avoideating kitniyot just like myancestors, all that fades from view. For thanks to their fidelity totradition and their determination to live as Jews, that “hill of beans”takes on a whole new and much deeper meaning.