The Minhag of Kitniyot - Part I by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


As part of our continuing series on Pesach topics, we will discuss the issue of Kitniyot.  This is a fascinating topic about which much has been written.  It has many modern-day applications.  Our discussion will be based on an excellent essay that appears in Techumin (Volume 13) written by Rav Yehuda Pris of Yeshivat Maaleh Adumim.

Gemara and Rishonim

The Torah forbids us to eat Chametz on Pesach.  Something becomes Chametz when flour and water mix together initiating a fermentation process.  The Mishna (Pesachim 35a) rules that Chametz can only be produced from certain grains: wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats (there is some question whether :"&-; :&3- should be identified as oats or as another grain; see Rav Yosef Efrati's essay concerning this topic which appears in the current issue of Mesora).  Only grains that potentially can become Chametz can be used to make Matza.

Millet and rice are not included in this list, explains the Mishna, because they spoil ("! -*$* 29(&0) and do not ferment (see Techumin 1:97 where Dr. P. Munk discusses the chemical difference between (*/&6 and 29(&0).

However, Rav Yochanan Ben Nuri includes rice (!&9') in the list of grains that has the potential to become Chametz.  The Gemara (Pesachim 114b) states that Rav Yochanan Ben Nuri is a lone authority concerning this topic.  The Rishonim therefore rule in accordance with the majority view which postulates that rice cannot become Chametz.  The Rambam is indicative of the accepted view.  He writes (Hilchot Chametz U'matza 5:11):

There is no prohibition regarding Chametz except with respect to the five categories of grain.  There are two types of wheat...and three types of barley...but Kitniyot such as rice...and the like are not included in the prohibition on Chametz.  Even if one were to knead rice flour...with hot water and cover it with a cloth until it rises like dough which fermented, it may still be eaten on Pesach, for it is not Chametz; instead it is 29(&0.

The Rif omits the opinion of Rav Yochanan Ben Nuri, indicating his acceptance of the majority view as the actual Halacha.  Similarly, the Rosh (Pesachim 2:12), Baal Hamaor (Pesachim 26b), and Ritva (Pesachim 35a) rule in accordance with the majority view.

The Beginning of the Ashkenazic Custom to Refrain from Eating Kitniyot

Even though most Rishonim reject Rav Yochanan Ben Nuri's ruling, some Rishonim were stringent regarding this issue.  The primary authority who espouses this stringency is the author of the Smak.  He writes (Mitzva 223):

Regarding Kitniyot such as rice and beans, our rabbis have the practice not to eat them on Pesach.  I believe that I have heard that one should not cook them on Pesach, besides in boiling water from the moment they are placed in the pot (note: this is what the Gemara calls (-*)%).  Many Gedolim are lenient concerning this issue but it appears very difficult to permit something when the common practice to be strict dates back to the early ages.  It is reasonable to say that this stringency did not emerge as a concern for Chametz, because they would not err on matters familiar even to the youngest of students, as the Gemara explicitly states that only the five species of grain have the potential to become Chametz...Rather, the reason is because of an edict to prevent violation of Torah law (#'*9%), since Kitniyot are cooked in a manner similar to the way that grains are cooked.  Had we permitted Kitniyot, one could easily have become confused because they are cooked similarly...In addition, in many locales Kitniyot are made into bread and people who are not well-versed in Torah laws might become confused.  This is not at all similar to vegetables which are clearly distinguishable from the five grains.  It is a proper Minhag to refrain from all Kitniyot including mustard because of their similarities to grain.  Even though the Talmud (Pesachim 114b) specifically permits rice, this rule applied only in Talmudic times when all were well-versed in Halacha.  But today, we should certainly follow the #'*9% that we mentioned...and even to put Kitniyot in boiling hot water should be forbidden because one may become confused and permit placing them in cold water.

Interestingly, the Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 453) cites the Smak as offering a different concern.  Namely, that Kitniyot become mixed with grains which have the ability to become Chametz.  The Ritva alludes to this concern:  "One must carefully inspect [Kitniyot such as rice] because spelt is constantly mixed with rice...Many pious individuals avoid eating these species on Pesach if they were cooked due to concerns regarding these mixtures."

Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Achronim

The Tur (Chapter 453) cites the Smak's stringency but comments that it is an excessive one.  The Beit Yosef adds that only Ashkenazim abide by this stringency.  Accordingly, the Mechaber (Shulchan Aruch 452:1) rules that one may cook and consume Kitniyot since they cannot become Chametz.  The Rema, however, writes (in his work $9,* /:% - commenting on the Tur) that Ashkenazim have adopted the strict practice of not eating Kitniyot on Pesach.  Similarly, in his gloss to the Shulchan Aruch he adds that!*0 -:1&; , we must not deviate from following this custom.  The Chok Yaakov (a premier commentary on the Hilchot Pesach section of the Shulchan Aruch) notes (253:9) that this is a mere stringency that was enacted to avoid problems.  The Vilna Gaon notes that a source for this stringency is the Gemara (Pesachim 40b) which records that Rava forbade servants who were not Halachically scrupulous to make bread from legumes on Pesach (see Tosafot s.v. 9"! and the Rosh 2:28).

Interestingly, there were some Ashkenazim who expressed serious reservations about this Minhag and a few who even strongly criticized it (see Rav Yaakov Emden, Mor U'ketzai 453 in the name of his famed father, the Chacham Zvi, and Encyclopedia Talmudit 16:104 note 691).

The Aruch Hashulchan, (O.C. 453:64) writing at the dawn of the twentieth century, presents what has become the normative practice of most Ashkenazim (he writes this after citing a source from the Yerushalmi which he believes serves as a source for the accepted practice):

Our forbearers practiced for many years the avoidance of eating rice etc... This prohibition has been accepted as a protection of our observance of Torah law; it is thus forbidden for us to abandon this practice.  Those who question this practice and are lenient concerning it are demonstrating serious flaws in their faith in God and fear of sin.  They also display a flawed comprehension of the proper ways of Torah observance.

Eating Kitniyot in Case of Illness and Famine, and Vegetarian Diets

While it is accepted practice among Ashkenazim to avoid eating Kitniyot on Pesach, this is a Minhag and not a rabbinic rule, so there is some flexibility regarding this issue.  For example, the Mishna Berura (453:7) writes that a seriously ill individual may eat Kitniyot even though his life is not in danger.  He notes that the Chatam Sofer states that the Kitniyot should be boiled, i.e. the water should be boiling when the Kitniyot are placed in them, since boiling prevents fermentation.  The reasoning behind this leniency is that we assume that our forbearers did not accept this stringency to be applicable in a case of illness.  Rav Yehuda Amital told this author that it was permissible for my family to boil kasha for my father z"l when he was suffering from an advanced stage of lung cancer when kasha was one of the few food items which he was able to eat.

Similarly, the Aruch Hashulchan (453:5) writes:

It was explicitly stipulated that in the event of famine or severe economic conditions, the local sages led by the chief rabbi are permitted to temporarily suspend the Minhag of avoiding Kitniyot on Pesach.  However, today when potatoes are so readily available, there is no such need to be lenient.

Similarly, a number of vegetarians and individuals on very strict diets have asked if there is any way that they may eat Kitniyot on Pesach.  Many of the rabbis I have consulted have been willing to be lenient for such individuals to consume boiled food items which are regarded as only questionably Kitniyot, such as quina, soy, peanuts, and string beans.  Competent Rabbinic guidance must be sought by those for whom this is a relevant concern.

Next week we shall delve further into the issues that arise concerning Kitniyot.

The Minhag of Kitniyot - Part II by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

The Importance of Prenuptial Agreements by Rabbi Chaim Jachter