Beit Midrash

  • Pesach
To dedicate this lesson
Chapter Nine-Part One

The Kitnyot Custom


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

1.The Origins of the Ashkenazic Custom
The ĥametz prohibited by the Torah is produced from one of the five types of grain: wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye. Other species such as rice and millet, even if they rise, do not undergo the same fermentation process as the five cereal grains, and they may be eaten on Pesaĥ. Although one Tanna, R. Yoĥanan b. Nuri, maintains that rice is also a cereal grain and forbidden by the Torah in its leavened state, the rest of the Sages maintain that even if rice rises, it may be eaten on Pesaĥ (Pesaĥim 35a). This was the practice of all the great Tanna’im and Amora’im. In fact, Rava ate rice at the Seder (ibid. 114b).
During the medieval era of the Rishonim (c. seven centuries ago), the Jews of Ashkenaz (Germany, especially the Rhineland) began to refrain from eating kitniyot 1 on Pesaĥ. Initially, only some communities observed this stringency, but within a few generations the custom had spread to all Ashkenazic communities.
Three principal reasons for this custom have been offered: A) Since kitniyot are cooked in the same manner as grains, in a pot, there is concern that if people cook rice on Pesaĥ they will end up mistakenly cooking forbidden types of grain. B) Since kitniyot, like cereal grains, are often made into flour, if the unlearned masses see pious Jews cooking and baking foods with kitniyot flour without concern for it becoming ĥametz, they are liable to do the same with grain flour as well. The rabbis of the Talmud were not concerned about this because, in their day, Jewish tradition was clear and established. However, the tribulations of the exile and the scattering of Jewish communities gave rise to a fear that some Jews would be cut off from tradition and come to forget what is forbidden and what is permitted. Eating kitniyot on Pesaĥ would cause them to err and eat forbidden cereal grains without taking care that they do not become ĥametz. C) Grain and kitniyot kernels are similar in appearance and are kept in the same storehouses for relatively long periods. It is therefore eminently possible that wheat or barley kernels would find their way into kitniyot, and when the kitniyot are cooked the grain will become ĥametz. This concern persists today, and indeed it is possible to find kernels of grain when checking kitniyot.
Another reason why kernels of kitniyot and cereal grain got mixed together was the common practice of crop rotation. Farmers often grow legumes for a year to replenish the soil of a field that had been used for growing grain for many years. However, kernels of the previous crop inevitably remain in the field. Thus, if a coriander or fenugreek crop is grown after a wheat crop, wheat will sprout among the coriander or fenugreek, and some kernels of wheat or barley will be found in the harvested crop of legumes. Experience shows that sometimes the quantity of cereal kernels in the kitniyot exceeds one sixtieth of the entire quantity. This problem applies to those species of kitniyot that physically resemble cereal grain.
2.The Sephardic Custom
During the era of the Rishonim, all Sephardic communities ate kitniyot and rice during Pesaĥ, though they were careful to pick out forbidden grains. Indeed, R. Yosef Karo writes (Beit Yosef §453) that nobody worries about "such things except for Ashkenazim."
However, some leading Sephardic Aĥaronim have written that many pious Jews refrain from eating rice during Pesaĥ because of a case in which some wheat was discovered in rice even after it had been checked several times (Pri Ĥadash, Ĥida). The Jews of Izmir have a custom not to eat rice on Pesaĥ (Lev Ĥayim 2:94), and the Jews of Morocco refrain from eating rice and other types of dry kitniyot on Pesaĥ. Ben Ish Ĥai (Year One, Tzav 41) states that in Baghdad many laypeople do not eat rice on Pesaĥ, and those who do must first check it two or three times. Each person should perpetuate his ancestral custom. Where there is doubt or difficulty in doing so, it is best to consult a rabbinic authority.
Certain spices such as cumin, turmeric, and fenugreek often have grains mixed in and should not be eaten without a prior meticulous inspection.
Nowadays rice is stored in the same packing-houses as flours and semolina. Therefore, those who eat rice on Pesaĥ must buy packages that are certified kosher for Pesaĥ and then check the rice thoroughly three times (Ama Devar 1:62).
3.Spouses from Different Communities
The following question arises frequently nowadays: what should a married couple do when one spouse comes from a family that refrains from kitniyot and the other from a family that eats kitniyot? A similar matter was addressed by one of the great Rishonim, R. Shimon b. Tzemaĥ Duran (Tashbetz 3:179), who writes that they obviously cannot eat together at the same table while food permissible to one is forbidden to the other. Therefore, the wife must adopt her husband’s customs, for "a man’s wife is like his own body." If the husband dies, it depends: if she has a child from him, she keeps his custom; otherwise, she reverts to her family’s custom.
R. Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OĤ 1:158) adds that the wife’s status is similar to that of one who moves to a place where the accepted custom is different from his own. If he intends to settle there, he relinquishes his previous custom and accepts the custom of his new home (based on SA YD 214:2, OĤ 468:4, and MB 14 ad loc.). When a woman marries, it is as if she moves permanently into her husband’s house, and she must therefore adopt his customs.
Accordingly, if an Ashkenazic woman marries a Sephardic man, she may eat kitniyot during Pesaĥ and need not perform hatarat nedarim (annulment of vows) because she is acting in accordance with the law that a woman adopts the customs of her husband. Nevertheless, some poskim recommend that she perform hatarat nedarim. 2
4.Prohibited Species
The familiar foods included in this custom are: rice, alfalfa, peas, millet, sorghum, chickpeas, fenugreek seeds, sunflower seeds, mustard, buckwheat (kusemet, not to be confused with kusmin – spelt – which is a forbidden cereal grain), cumin, vetch, black-eyed peas, arum, soy, mung beans, lentils, fava beans, lupin beans, poppy seeds, flaxseed, pulse, caraway, hemp seeds, common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), sesame seeds, lupine seeds, corn, clover seed, and tamarind fruit. Products made from kitniyot – corn flakes, corn flour, and rice cakes, for example – are also included in the custom. Saffron was originally called "karkom" in Hebrew and is included in the prohibition. Turmeric, the Modern Hebrew karkom, is permitted. Mustard and flaxseed are not kitniyot, but the custom is to forbid them because they grow in pods like kitniyot.
Rema writes that it is permitted to eat dill and coriander because they are not kitniyot. Nonetheless, Aĥaronim write that they must be examined well because they often contain wheat (MA, MB 453:13).
There are differing customs regarding peanuts. In Jerusalem and many other places people refrain from eating them (Mikra’ei Kodesh 2:60), but in Greater Lithuania they were customarily eaten. One who does not know whether his family was stringent in this regard may eat them (Igrot Moshe OĤ 3:63).
Potato flour is permitted on Pesaĥ. There is no contention that based on the customary prohibition of kitniyot anything from which flour can be made should be forbidden. Rather, the custom only includes what the great Ashkenazic Rishonim forbade. Since potatoes had not yet arrived in Europe then, they are not included in the prohibition (ibid.).

^ 1.Editor’s note: we have refrained from translating the term "kitniyot" since there is no precise equivalent in English, and an imprecise translation would be misleading. In earlier contexts (such as the laws of kilayim, which prohibit cultivating dissimilar species in close proximity), kitniyot referred specifically to members of the legume family. As currently used, the category of kitniyot includes species that are not legumes, and not every member of the legume family is considered kitniyot.
^ 2.. Igrot Moshe OĤ 1:158 proves that this is a Torah law from the fact that the Torah exempts a married woman from the obligation to honor her parents, since this mitzva would require her to actively clothe and feed her parents if necessary, and her obligations to her household take priority (SA YD 240:17; obviously if there is no clash between the two obligations, she is commanded to honor her parents). Thus, according to the Torah, a woman’s place is in her husband’s home.
Igrot Moshe also asserts that she need not perform hatarat nedarim. MB 468:14 states that one who moves from one locale to another must behave according to the custom of the new place. It is implied that since this is the halakha, there is no need for hatarat nedarim. This is also the opinion of Kaf Ha-ĥayim 468:43. Additionally, in extenuating circumstances even Ashkenazic communities did not accept the custom of refraining from kitniyot and can therefore be lenient in situations of famine or sickness (MB 453:7). Similarly, two different customs in one household would certainly cause tension, and thus she changes her custom without performing hatarat nedarim. Sidur Pesaĥ Ke-hilkhato 16:13 states that she must perform hatarat nedarim, and Ĥazon Ovadia (p. 56 and n. 10) states that it is better to perform hatarat nedarim.
May Ashkenazim perform hatarat nedarim and eat kitniyot? Kaf Ha-ĥayim 453:15 states that according to Mahari Levi (§38), one who refrained from eating kitniyot because he thought they are ĥametz may perform hatarat nedarim, but one who knew, or whose ancestors knew, that kitniyot is merely a stringent custom may not perform hatarat nedarim. Thus, Ashkenazim may not perform hatarat nedarim and eat kitniyot. According to Pri Ĥadash §468, one need not perform hatarat nedarim to annul a custom that originated in a mistake, so even one who knew that kitniyot is just a stringent custom may annul his vow and eat kitniyot. However, we need to examine whether he would apply this reasoning to a custom accepted by an entire community; perhaps even according to Pri Ĥadash hatarat nedarim would not be effective in such a case. Ĥatam Sofer OĤ §122 upholds the opinion of Mahari Levi. This is in fact the customary practice: we find that Ashkenazim do not perform hatarat nedarim and eat kitniyot except in the case of a sick person. Sidur Pesaĥ Ke-hilkhato 16 n. 47 and in the addenda quotes some who believe that kitniyot originated as an enactment ("gezeira"). According to this, even an Ashkenazic woman who marries a Sephardic man would not be permitted to eat kitniyot. Nevertheless, we do not follow this opinion, and an Ashkenazic woman should follow her husband’s customs.
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