Kitniyos: A Brief Overview


riceBy Rabbi Yair Hoffman

It is known as the great Ashkenazic-Sephardic divide; the details are found in Chapter 423 of the Orach Chayim section of the Shulchan Aruch. We are, of course, referring to kitniyos.

The minhag to not eat kitniyos (often defined as “legumes”) on Pesach dates back to the times of the Geonim (see SMaK 222). During the time of the Gemara, the prohibition did not exist. Indeed, the Gemara tells us that Rabbah ate rice in front of Rav Huna (Pesachim 114b). Rav Ashi also rules that rice may be eaten on Pesach. But clearly, in the time of the Geonim things changed.

The reason why kitniyos were forbidden, of course, was as a protective measure. The Mishnah Berurah (O.C. 453:6, 464:5) provides a few explanations:

1) Kitniyos are harvested and processed in the same way that chametz is. The masses would confuse the two and come to permit grains for themselves. (2) Kitniyos can also be ground and baked, just like chametz, and people might come to permit chametz grains. (3) The Kitniyos themselves may have actual chametz mixed in. All three reasons are therefore protective in nature. The prohibition was strictly limited to consumption; one may own and derive benefit from kitniyos on Pesach.

Just what is included in kitniyos? The term “legumes” is a misnomer, as that word simply means a plant in the family Fabaceae (or Leguminosae), or the edible fruit or seeds of such plants, such as beans and peas. The prohibition extended beyond just legumes, however. Rice, mustard, and corn (see M.B. 453:4) are also included. So are buckwheat, lentils, and sesame seeds. The TaZ writes that it is simply impossible to clearly define and quantify what is included in the category.

What about coffee? Is that a bean? The Shaarei Teshuvah forbids coffee as kitniyos. And what about peanuts? Some say yes, some say no.

And why are we so stringent regarding derivatives of kitniyos? This comes from a halachah found in the Rama: the Rama indicates that oil made from kitniyos is forbidden just like the kitniyos themselves. Cottonseed oil is perplexing, because some say yes and some say no. Canola oil is kitniyos, too.

When are kitniyos forbidden? The Sheivet HaLevi (Vol. III, No. 31) rules that the time we can no longer eat them is the same time as for chametz itself. The Maharsham (Daas Torah 453) permits it, until the evening of Pesach itself. The minhag is to be stringent, but for those direct descendents of the Maharsham (quite a few of whom live in Lawrence), it would be okay to eat kitniyos on erev Pesach.

There is also a leniency. Kitniyos is battul b’rov if mixed in accidentally with other (kosher l’Pesach) food (see Mishnah Berurah 453:9). In other words, even if the taste is distinguishable, as long as the kitniyos constitutes less than half of the final mixture and is not removable, the food remains kosher! The Rav Shulchan Aruch says that this doesn’t work if it is the main part of the dish, though-even when less than half.

Sick people may also eat kitniyos on Pesach, and it is permitted to feed kitniyos to infants or to animals. The Chasam Sofer writes (O.C. 122) not to let it cook a long time in the pot, but rather to heat up the water first and then put in the kitniyos (which is what we do anyway, except when using a rice cooker). Ideally, if one is feeding someone kitniyos, a separate pot should be kept for that use (P’ri Chadash 453). There is no need to kasher, though, if an error was made.

When a couple gets married, the wife follows the customs of the husband. So a Sephardic girl who marries an Ashkenazic boy cannot have kitniyos, while an Ashkenazic girl who marries a Sephardic boy may have kitniyos. This is true for a second marriage, as well.

Another question: Is the prohibition of kitniyos here to stay? The Teshuvah MeAhavah (No. 259) seems to indicate that it is. He writes that even if the beis din of Shmuel HaRamasi or Eliyahu HaNavi were to reconvene, they would not have the ability to permit kitniyos. And, at least according to some poskim, it is a pretty serious prohibition; the Maharil (Hilchos Pesach 25) writes that violating the minhag can cause one to be put to death!

But why all the stringencies? Why do we forbid so many things-and their derivatives, as well? Why on erev Pesach, too? Perhaps a philosophical approach to kitniyos can answer a lot of our questions. One reason, given by the father of Koznitz Hagaddah’s publisher (found in the Nuta Gavriel), is that the word alludes to a notion that means small, while Pesach is associated with things that are great.

To elaborate a bit, kitniyos represents something which is the antithesis of Pesach. Of all the holidays on the Jewish calendar, Pesach connotes greatness-a realization of who we are as a nation, and a concomitant recognition that Hashem had great purpose in redeeming us from the hand of Pharaoh. Within the small nation of Israel lies cosmic significance with a national spiritual destiny that can affect the world. Pesach connotes geulah, redemption, with all the overtones implied in the word.

Kitniyos, on the other hand, alludes to smallness The word conjures up thoughts of a myopic, small-mindedness of sorts, where the cosmic significance and the national destiny of the Jewish people is ignored. Everything that we do has import, even down to the foods we eat or the foods that we do not eat. Perhaps we are so stringent in avoiding kitniyos to help us dispose of the small-mindedness that can get us stuck into just looking at the trees without seeing the forest. For the same reason, the community of the town of Ostreich refrained from eating kitniyos on any day on which Tachanun is not recited (see Be’er Heitev O.C. 131, citing the Maharil). The reason? Also, to appeal to the inner voice within us to achieve our destiny, both as a people and as individuals.

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  1. Many communities have a minhag to use kitniyot oil. There are poskim who say that today that oils are extracted using a dry process there is no prohibition whatsoever.
    The question regarding peanuts – if something which was not known in Europe at the time the minhag was made – also applies to soya and canola. Cottonseed oil is allowed by some because the cottonseed plant itself is poisonous thus there cannot be a minhag not to eat it.
    In general, one should retain a sense of proportion. It is a very strong minhag (Although the Teshuva me’Ahava’s opinion needs to be analyzed as it seems very difficult to say that a Sanhedrin of semuchim could not repeal it. Perhaps he was just using lashon guzma). However, it is a minhag not even an issur d’rabbanan so it would seem that any safek would certainly be l’kula.

  2. Kitniyos are all good and fine if you are sephardic. How does a 13 year old jewish soul process that there is one group that can and one group that can not. And not only that, but looking at the above, the simplest of jews should be able to understand all of the restrictions on a Jewish soul. I propose that with kitniyos this is impossible.

  3. Anonymous #4
    Askhenazi kids or sefaradi kids? And where do they come from? the moon? they did not see their family minhag for 12 or 13 years? Even if their family is not observant, what sort of jewish parent does not say “we are not supposed to eat these foods”? A 13 year old soul does not realize that jews are different from nonjews, men from women, kohanim from leviim from yisraelim? An Askhenazi home does not have enough treats to keep a sefardic guest happy? A Sefaradi family can’t fix some non-kitniot food for their askhenazi guests? Even frei or reform jews will offer some oranges or some walnuts in the shell, in a disposable plate, to their strictly observant friends on pesach!

  4. Rav Asher Weiss says that an Ashkenazi can give kitniyot to a Sephardi guest – therefore they are not muktza (it’s a nafka mina here in Israel where Ashkenazim were able to eat kitniyot on Shabbat).

  5. Extremely lucid and well-explained, but the philosophical context would appear to apply to both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. It is difficult to talk about old “fences” and issues regarding “smallness” without recognizing that many orthodox Jews–and a majority of those in Eretz Yisrael–do not recognize the minhag of kitniyot. Neither did Rashi or the Rambam. Who are we to adopt and maintain customs in the diapsora that are foreign to our homeland and would have been foreign to the greatest of all sages?