The Kitniyot Dilemma
Every spring, Ashkenazic Jews ask: since kitniyot (legumes) and rice are not chametz, why can’t we eat them on Pesach? In this brief summary of a Hebrew responsum adopted by the Law Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel in 1989, Rabbi David Golinkin explains how and why we can change this Ashkenazic custom.
Most of the Tannaim (rabbis who lived ca. 70- 220 CE) ruled that only five species of grain, including wheat and barley, may be used to bake matzah. When mixed with water, those grains ferment and become chametz (which is prohibited on Passover by the Torah) if not baked within 18 minutes. They further ruled that since sesame seeds and rice do not ferment but rather decay, they therefore may be eaten. The only Tanna who disagreed was Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri who said that rice is a type of grain that can become chametz (Pesachim 35a).
The rabbis of the Talmud discussed this issue in Tractate Pesachim (114b), where they asked: What are the two cooked dishes mentioned in the Mishnah and beraita (a Tannaitic teaching not included in the Mishnah) to be served at the seder? “Rav Huna said: beets and rice. Rava made an effort to serve beets and rice since it came out of the mouth of Rav Huna. Rav Ashi said: learn from Rav Huna that no one heeds the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri.” In other words, two of the most prominent Babylonian rabbis served rice as one of the main dishes at the seder and Rav Ashi explicitly ruled that no one follows the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri that rice may not be eaten.
The Geonim in Babylon (ca. 600-1000 CE) and more than 50 Rishonim (rabbis who lived ca. 1000-1575 CE) in North Africa, Spain, Provence, France, Germany, England, and Italy ruled, like the Mishnah and Talmud, that only five grains may be used for matzah or may become chametz. Their approach was nicely summarized by Maimonides (Laws of Chametz and Matzah 5:1): “Only five types of grain can become forbidden because of chametz on Pesach… but kitniyot such as rice, millet, beans, lentils, and the like cannot become chametz. Even if one kneads rice flour and the like in boiling water and covers it with clothing until it rises like dough which has become chametz, it is permissible to eat [on Pesach] because it is not fermentation but rather decay.”
The custom of not eating kitniyot and rice on Pesach is first mentioned in France and Provence in the 13th century by Rabbis Asher of Lunel, Samuel of Falaise and Peretz of Corbeil. From there it spread to various countries and the list of prohibited foods continued to expand. Nevertheless, the reason for the custom was unknown and, as a result, rabbis invented at least 10 different explanations. For example, chametz sounds like chimtzei (= humus = chickpeas); if we allow kitniyot porridge we will eat grain porridge because both are cooked in a pot; rice and kitniyot are sometimes mixed with wheat. The large number of explanations for not eating kitniyot proves that no one knew the real reason. I believe that the original custom was to refrain from kitniyot on all festivals, not just Pesach, because kitniyot were associated with poor people, mourners and Tishah b’Av.
Whatever the original reason, Rabbi Samuel of Falaise (13th century), one of the first to mention it, referred to it as a minhag mahmat taut (mistaken custom), Rabbi Yeruham (Provence, 14th century) called it a minhag shtut (foolish custom), and Rabbi Ya’akov Ben Asher (Toledo, d. 1343) said, “it is an unnecessary humra (stringency), which is not followed.”
Therefore, the main halakhic question is whether it is permissible to do away with a mistaken or foolish custom. Many rabbinic authorities – including Rabbi Abin in Talmud Yerushalmi, Pesachim, Maimonides, the Rosh, and the Ribash – ruled that it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to do away with this type of foolish custom. Furthermore, there are many good reasons to do away with this particular custom. It detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods. It causes exorbitant price hikes, which contradicts the legal principle that “the Torah takes pity on the people of Israel’s money.” It emphasizes the insignificant (legumes) and ignores the significant (chametz from the five kinds of grain). It causes people to scoff at the commandments; if we observe this custom that has no purpose, there is no reason to observe other commandments. And, finally, in Israel it causes unnecessary divisions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
The only reason to observe this custom is the desire to preserve an old custom. But this desire does not override everything mentioned above. Therefore, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim are permitted to eat legumes and rice on Pesach without fear of transgressing any prohibition. Ashkenazim who want to observe the original custom can refrain from eating rice and legumes on Pesach, but can still use oil made from legumes as well as all the other foods forbidden over the years, such as peas, garlic, mustard, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.
Those who want to eat all kitniyot must avoid processed kitniyot without a Kosher for Pesach label, which may contain chametz. They may only purchase processed products labeled kasher l’Pesach l’okhlei kitniyot (kosher for Pesach for those who eat kitniyot).
They also may buy pure unprocessed kitniyot before Pesach, such as fresh or frozen beans, 100 percent pure peanut butter, and pure rice. This is because any chametz that might be present is batel b’shishim, annulled by 60 times its volume, if purchased before Pesach. Chametz purchased during the holiday cannot be annulled.
Hopefully, this responsum will add joy and pleasure to the observance of the Feast of Freedom.
The full text of this responsum was published in the Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel 3 (5748- 5749), pp. 35-55, www.reponsafortoday.com/Vol3/4.pdf.
Prof. David Golinkin is the president and Jerome and Miriam Katzin Professor of Jewish Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem where he also directs the Institute of Applied Halakhah and the Center for Women in Jewish Law. His most recent publication is The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa.