Perils of a market full of beans
PASSOVER AIN’T what it used to be. Time was, the Passover selection in the kosher corner shop was limited to matzot, ground almonds, potato flour, sugar and chrane. Today, with globalisation and the increasing sophistication of food manufacture, Passover superstores are piled high with every conceivable item, including Passover cereals, noodles and even pizza.
Ashkenazim beware, however. Increasingly there is a tiny warning, hidden between the ingredients and the nutritional information: “contains kitniot” or worse, in Hebrew only, “rak l’ochlei kitniot” (suitable only for those who eat kitniot). The tradition of Ashkenazim not eating kitniot (broadly speaking, beans and pulses) goes back at least a thousand years. The earliest explicit source is the halachic work SeMaK (Sefer Mitzvot Katan), by Rabbi Yitschak of Corbeil, son-in-law of the Tosafist Rabbi Yechiel of Paris. Writing in the 1200s, he recalls the custom to refrain from such foods “since the time of the early chachamim and rabbonim”.
The Vilna Gaon, however, suggests this custom existed even in talmudic times. He refers to Pesachim 40b, where Rava objects to the chefs of the Exilarch (early kashrut supervision?) cooking “chasisi” on Pesach, which the Aruch translates as “lentils”. Thus when Rabbi Yosef Karo, a Sephardi, records in his Shulchan Aruch that “matzah and chametz can come only from the five grains — wheat, barley, oat, rye and spelt — whereas rice and other kitniot are acceptable,” Rabbi Moshe Isserlis, an Ashkenazi, immediately interpolates: “however, other authorities prohibit them and the Ashkenazi minhag is to be stringent and this should not be changed”.
The basis for this prohibition, however, is lost in antiquity. Among the many reasons suggested are:
Kitniot grain is often grown adjacent to chametz grain and the possibility of accidental mingling is high.
Cooked products such as porridge are almost indistinguishable from their kitniot counterparts.
Kitniot were often transported in the same sacks and baskets as chametz flour and might be contaminated.
Wheat grown under poor agricultural conditions sometimes looks like certain kitniot crops, so the rabbis banned kitniot to avoid confusion.
It is common to make flour from peas and beans, which can easily be confused with chametz flour.
A leaflet from the Flour Advisory Council entitled The History of Bread seems to endorse this last reason, recording: “In addition to wheat and rye, bread was made from oats, barley, grass seeds and, in times of shortage and famine, even peas and beans”.
Whatever the original reasons and their applicability today, the Aruch Hashulchan and other halachic authorities stress the custom is sacred and must not be treated lightly.
The Maharil, Rabbi Jacob Moellin of the 15th century, one of the most important sources of Ashkenazi custom, writes that the one who eats kitniot on Pesach is transgressing the biblical command of “Lo sassur”, the obligation to follow the decisions of the Sages, and is deserving of death.
Nonetheless there are several important leniencies with regard to kitniot. One is allowed to own and derive benefit from them and keep them in the house on Pesach without concern that they may inadvertently be eaten. A sick person may eat kitniot, even if the illness is not life-threatening. (The KLBD list of medicines approved for Pesach includes many with ingredients of kitniot origin.) Furthermore, if kitniot become mixed into Pesach food, the mixture may be allowed, whereas with chametz it would be forbidden.
Even among Sephardim, there are some who avoid kitniot and others who specifically refrain from eating rice.
But what exactly are kitniot? The word is commonly translated as “legumes”. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a legume is a plant that has its seeds contained within a pod. It is clear, however, that the halachic convention includes a far wider group. Maimonides cites rice, millet, beans and lentils. Others add sesame seeds, mustard seeds, caraway seeds and, of course, peas. Maize, or corn, while technically not a legume, has become universally considered kitniot; similarly the soya bean.
As new food products came within the ambit of Jewish cuisine, there was much debate as to whether they might be considered kitniot. Sunflower, rape and peanuts (groundnuts) are controversial. Some communities avoid groundnut oil; others enjoy supervised Passover peanut butter.
Coffee and potatoes were among products queried in the halachic literature but somehow escaped the ban.
Recently quinoa has come on the market. Grown in the Andes, this grain had not been part of Jewish cuisine and so had never been considered kitniot. On this basis, several kashrut authorities in America permit it. In Israel, however, it seems to be regarded as kitniot.
Another debate concerns derivatives of kitniot, such as sesame oil. Some suggest the original minhag applied only to seeds and flour, which might be confused with other grains but not oil derivatives. In the 1920s, Rav Kook, then Chief Rabbi of Yaffo, granted a kosher lePesach hechsher to sesame oil, which was strongly disputed by the rabbis of Jerusalem. Some argue that, even according to the stricter view, rapeseed oil (canola) and cottonseed oil should be permitted, since the original seeds are not edible and so could never have been confused with ordinary grain.
A similar debate concerns products derived from kitniot through conversion or fermentation. Many common ingredients, such as citric acid, ascorbic acid, aspartame sweetener and monosodium glutamate, are produced by enzyme-based fermentation processes, often using corn syrup. This explains why, although normal Coke and Sprite produced for Passover bear Rav Landau’s kosher l’Pesach hechsher, Diet Coke and Diet Sprite, containing artificial sweetener, do not.
Today, one must be part rav, part scientist and part detective to evaluate what to buy. Or shop at a KLBD store, where the painstaking investigation and analysis has been done for you.
Rabbi Conway is director of the kashrut division of the London Beth Din