Kitniyot in Israel: The most heated debate around Passover – The Jerusalem Post

Posted By on April 20, 2024

Judaism is famous for its dietary restrictions, but Passover takes it to another level by prohibiting the consumption or even any benefit derived from hametz. But while this is universal among observant Jews, there is another restriction that is far more divisive and continues to this day: kitniyot.

Hametz is a very specific prohibition, referring to foods made from five grains rye, wheat, oats, barley, and spelt and become leavened, meaning they mix with water and are left to rise.

But then theres kitniyot. The word itself means legumes but has expanded to cover a wide range of foodstuffs such as peas, sunflower seeds, rice, and corn.

While the prohibition against kitniyot never really took hold in Sephardi communities, it flourished among Ashkenazi Jews, and to this day remains an ironclad fixture in Ashkenazi Jewry.

But what about in Israel? A large number of Jews here are Sephardi, and Judaism has a long tradition of minhag hamakom, of adopting the prevailing custom of the community. Many Ashkenazim do, in fact, consume kitniyot on Passover in Israel, but it is by no means prevailing. And still, many Jews who come to Israel for Passover often struggle to find kosher-for-Passover food in stores and restaurants that dont contain kitniyot.

Growing up in New York, I remember being despondent over yet another bland matzah brei breakfast. My sister and I voiced our complaints, and our father vowed that if we ever made aliyah, we would eat kitniyot. Years later, after finally moving to Israel, we reminded our father of this. His response: You werent supposed to remember that.

To this day, my father denies this exchange took place, though my sister and I both remember it. But regardless, he still insists on refraining from eating kitniyot on Passover.

Polling different Jerusalemites, it seems many are still divided about kitniyot. Some who were born Ashkenazi have taken up the practice of eating kitniyot, pointing out that it is the predominant minhag in the country. Others, however, stick to their original customs.

With that in mind, In Jerusalem decided to take a look at the history of the kitniyot prohibition, what exactly constitutes kitniyot, and why the prohibition persists to this day.

There are a few opinions as to why this custom developed, but here is what we do know.

All sources tend to agree that the prohibition against eating kitniyot on Passover originated in Western Europe in medieval times, first cropping up in France in the 13th century before spreading across the Rhine River into what is now Germany.

Where they differ is the reason this custom developed.

Two commonly cited explanations are as follows:

It turns out, it has always been a bit of a mystery as to why this prohibition exists in the first place.

The earliest known records of the kitniyot prohibition were in the writings of a few rabbinic scholars, namely Rabbi Asher of Lunel, Rabbi Samuel of Falaise, Rabbi Barukh Hayyim, Rabbeinu Manoah, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, and Rabbeinu Peretz. And none of them could properly agree on why Ashkenazi Jews dont eat kitniyot on Passover.

Rabbi Asher of Lunel is perhaps the earliest source, writing in 1210 CE in Sefer Haminhagot that certain foods (understood to mean kitniyot) cant be eaten on Passover because they become leavened (i.e., they rise and become bread-like). This is later contradicted by Rabbeinu Manoah, who wrote that the prohibition couldnt be for that reason, since kitniyot by definition do not become leavened.

Rabbeinu Peretz wrote that it was to make sure Jews dont accidentally eat food made of grains on Passover, since they are cooked in the same utensils as kitniyot, as well as the fact that one can make bread out of kitniyot, so if one does so, they might mistakenly think wheat bread is acceptable, too.

Rabbi Barukh Hayyim reportedly said that during the rest of the year, people are accustomed to mixing grain flour with kitniyot and might accidentally do the same on Passover.

Rabbeinu Manoah gave an alternative explanation: One is required to rejoice and celebrate on Passover, and according to him, there is no joy in eating kitniyot.

However, early rabbis also gave numerous objections to the practice regardless of the reason, and none of these reasons explains why Ashkenazim adopted this practice but Sephardim didnt. But lets consider some other, more modern understandings of kitniyot, rabbinic literature, and history.

One popular idea is to link the prohibition to advancements in agriculture. According to Rabbi Elli Fischer, the prohibition against kitniyot was linked to the development of three-field crop rotation in Europe.

We have good evidence for this, he told In Jerusalem. The kitniyot custom emerged specifically among Ashkenazi communities in the Middle Ages due to the development of three-field crop rotation. Each year, a third of the land would have grains planted in the fall, and another third with legumes, which have the means to replenish the soil with nitrogen. The third field would stay fallow. Nowadays, we dont use this system, since we have a way to pull nitrogen from the air to replenish the soil.

The reason this makes sense is that three-field crop rotation was exclusive to a European-like climate. In the Middle East and Mediterranean regions, where it was much drier, farmers would use two-crop rotation. One field would be planted, and the other field would be left fallow, meaning there would always be a two-year gap. In the fields in Ashkenazi territory, one would plant legumes one year and then grains the next year, which would result in some legumes being mixed in with the grains. This wouldnt have happened in Sephardi communities, though, where there would be a two-year gap. Hence, this would only occur in Ashkenazi communities.

Fischer elaborated on this idea in a 2016 Mosaic magazine article, writing: Initially, both the spring and autumn plantings were grain: generally wheat in the autumn and barley in the spring. Gradually, however, the spring planting came more prominently to feature oats and legumes. Oats were needed to feed the horses that were fast becoming the areas primary beasts of burden. Legumes the family that includes peas and beans replenished soil with their nitrogen-fixing properties, and balanced diets with their high concentration of proteins.

Not only are there academic sources backing up Fischers claims, but there are also rabbinic ones. One of the early rabbinic sources on the custom, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, specifically cited the three-field crop rotation.

Another possibility was put forth by Rabbi Dr. Elisha S. Ancselovits, an expert in medieval Jewish history and lecturer at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and Yeshivat Maale Gilboa.

Ancselovits points out a few interesting facts about kitniyot. First, its link to what can be made into matzah. Regardless of what counts as kitniyot or ones thoughts on it, rice and legumes are not permitted to be made into matzah only the five grains are allowed for that. This reason, he argues, is due to equality. Bread made from legumes cant be properly leavened, which means it is of poor quality. This, he says, is the food of the destitute.

Reducing the options of ingredients with which one may make matzah requires the wealthy to provide for the poor, something that would create a sense of equality among the socioeconomic classes of Jewish society.

How did this extend to a general prohibition against kitniyot among Ashkenazi Jews? Ancselovits says that the level of poverty among these Ashkenazi communities at the time was relatively low, and legume-bread was considered, as Rabbeinu Manoah argued, unenjoyable. This, and the fact that matzah wasnt allowed to be made from legumes, could have contributed to the custom of eschewing kitniyot altogether.

With that out of the way, which foods are actually kitniyot? As mentioned, the word means legumes, though it is mostly associated with rice. These foods are ancient and were known to the Jewish people throughout history, so it makes sense that there are customs associated with them.

Where it gets tricky is with New World foods.

For example, corn is a cereal grain unique to the New World. Botanically speaking, it doesnt qualify as a legume, as its seeds are different and its roots lack the soil-replenishing nitrogen bubbles. And yet, it is classified as kitniyot. Why is that?

According to Fischer, the reason is the language.

Corn was included as kitniyot because in most languages, corn is known as Turkish wheat, so they thought it was like wheat, he explained. And indeed, corn was first introduced to Europe through the Ottoman Empire, so it became known as Turkish wheat.

But does that mean the only reason we dont eat corn on Passover is because people didnt realize that what Europeans were calling Turkish wheat wasnt actually wheat? Is it really down entirely to linguistics?

Yes, Fischer said. Youre talking about average Jews in the 1600s. What did they know about corn?

He further said that this linguistic confusion wasnt unique to corn. The German word for potatoes is similar to the word for truffle, so many Jews thought potatoes were like mushrooms and thus made the appropriate blessing on them as opposed to the blessing for vegetables.

Then there are peanuts. Though ostensibly legumes, there are Jews, such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who contend that peanuts do not count as kitniyot because they were only introduced to Europe in the 16th century. However, the custom to refrain from eating them persists to this day.

Where things get really contentious is kitniyot derivatives. For instance, many Jews who eschew peanuts on Passover will still use peanut oil.

And this controversy is rather old, too.

In 1909, a major controversy erupted in Jerusalem regarding Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook.

He seemingly broke from tradition and, despite many objections at the time, ruled that sesame seed oil is permissible on Passover, even though sesame seeds themselves are kitniyot. This is because since they changed into oil, it is impossible for anyone to even consider the possibility that it could be prohibited, since oils cant become hametz, and in fact anything cooked cannot become hametz.

Rav Kooks ruling has stood the test of time, in theory. In practice, however, many people refrain from using kitniyot-derived oil on Passover. It is why kosher-for-Passover sodas dont contain corn syrup.

Another major and very controversial kitniyot-related ruling was made in 2007 by the rabbis of the Shilo Institute, led by David Bar-Hayim, Yehoshua Buch, and Chaim Wasserman. This ruling said that Israeli Jews were a new identity unto themselves, rather than Ashkenazi or Sephardi, and should therefore follow the customs of Israel. Taking it further, it means that all Jews in Israel should be allowed to eat kitniyot.

We can see the following points are evident:

So why has the custom to not eat kitniyot on Passover persisted all this time, even if there is no need for it, and even if prominent rabbis have said that certain foods are acceptable?

In all my personal research for this article, the best explanation I could find came from Rabbi Chaim Jachter in his book Gray Matter: Discourses in Contemporary Halachah. There, he writes the following: The general practice to be very strict about kashrut on Pesach seems to have taken hold with kitniyot, despite the rulings of such eminent authorities as Rav Kook and Rav Moshe.

Perhaps things will change, but regardless of how absurd the circumstances regarding the kitniyot prohibition may appear to be, according to Rabbi Fischer, the same can also be said of those who oppose it.

People turn it into a crusade, he explained. Let me tell you a story. I had a friend from the States who was staying at a Jerusalem hotel for Passover, and he invited me over for breakfast. There was a big breakfast spread, absolutely gorgeous and delicious. But the whole time, he was complaining about kitniyot. I said to him, Youre having a better meal than your grandparents could have ever imagined, and youre complaining about your beans?

Theres a real heritage behind it, and I think ultimately as Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities sort of amalgamate together into one Israeli identity, the custom will fall by the wayside. But I dont understand the people who turn it into a crusade. It just seems very unserious.

Looking into kitniyot led me to another question: Why is it that everyone agrees coffee is totally acceptable on Passover?

Sure, there is the joke that its because Maxwell House makes Haggadot, but whats really going on?

Botanically speaking, coffee isnt exactly a bean, per se. Its actually the seed of the coffee cherry. But it certainly looks like a bean far more than corn looks like wheat.

One might expect there to be a long rabbinic debate on the subject. After all, the history of coffee and Jews is vast, as are the halachic arguments. Many rabbis in the 1500s questioned if coffee even counted as a food or if it should be medicine (it chases away sleep), though ultimately ruled that it was, in fact, food. There were debates about where one should even have coffee (at home or at a coffeehouse?) and whether non-Jews were allowed to produce coffee for Jews.

Coffee had a profound influence on Judaism and Jewish life, and Jews in turn were instrumental in helping spread coffee throughout the world.

But if it looks so much like a bean, and is even called a bean linguistically, and many Jews did seem to think it was kitniyot, why is it not considered as such today?

While the Maxwell House reference seems like a joke, that company is actually the answer.

In the 1920s, Maxwell House ran numerous advertisements in the New York Jewish publication The Forvets (now The Forward), thanks to the help of advertisement manager Joseph Jacobs.

Jacobs is one of the most influential people in the history of kashrut branding and is extensively documented in the book Jewish Mad Men by Kerri P. Steinberg. Jacobs reportedly came up with the idea of hechsher (kashrut supervision) labels on boxes. His idea for Maxwell House was to have them use the Passover shopping season to market themselves to Jews, and he did this by getting a prominent rabbi to verify that coffee beans are not actually beans.

To seal the deal and, as Steinberg noted, to make up for how Maxwell House coffee was more expensive than competitors Jacobs came up with The Maxwell House Haggadah and got stores to lower the price.

Speaking to the Marketplace news outlet in 2018, Elie Rosenfeld, CEO of Joseph Jacobs Advertising, referred to this as the original content marketing.

Now, Maxwell House Haggadot are the most popular in the world, and coffee remains drinkable on Passover and Israelis might just riot if that werent the case.

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Kitniyot in Israel: The most heated debate around Passover - The Jerusalem Post

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