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

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