Rice and Beans and Mustard Seeds, Oh My!

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
April 8, 2016 / 29 Adar II, 5776

Next week, Saturday, April 16th, we will be celebrating with our New Member Shabbat. I’m quite excited. Apart from the fact that my family are new members, our community keeps adding wonderful people. If you are a new member and haven’t yet responded to directed emails, we still hope you will come and participate. For everyone else, it would be wonderful if you could welcome and meet these latest additions to our Neveh family. We have some moving additions planned for the service followed by a celebratory kiddush luncheon. 

Over the last number of weeks, both in my weekly column and in our Passover Guide, we’ve included links to some halakhic legal decisions that permit Ashkenazic Jews to eat kitniot on Pesach. While those decisions are quite informative, they also vary in complexity. Given that, we’ll include a quick review of what kitniot are, why they are now permitted, and some practical guidelines to follow for those who want to enjoy rice and beans during the holiday.

The Five Grains That Are Forbidden, The Legumes That Are Not

The Torah and the Talmud forbid only five grains and their by-products to us during the festival of freedom. They are wheat, oats, barley, spelt and rye. Any other food stuff that is not made from or derived from these five grains is permissible. Nonetheless, over the years, and particularly in late medieval Europe through the 19th century, a stringency developed that placed many other food stuffs off limits. A short list would include items such as rice, beans, many seeds including sesame, caraway, mustard and fennel. Additional items such as peanuts, string beans and corn have also been added. At one point, even potatoes were forbidden! Those interested in botany will quickly see that many of these items are not legumes, and that there is no connection between many of these.

Why They Were Forbidden, Why They Are Permitted

Apart from one minority opinion in the Talmud that was rejected, we have no early sources that prohibit anything but the five grains that make up hametz. Nor do we find later sources such as the Gaonim or Rishonim forbidding additional foodstuffs. What appears to be the case is that the latest European sources (the Aharonim) who forbade the consumption of kitniot often had no good reason, and many even say as much. Even in this relatively late layer of legal reasoning, many of the most prominent writers talk about the prohibition as a “foolish custom” with no basis. This, by the way, is the reason that historically, kitniot have been freely enjoyed by Sephardic Jewry. Their traditions were not influenced by these peculiar Ashkenazic trends. Regardless, this relatively late period is the origin of the custom in question and why Passover is so hard for so many people.

Nonetheless, you may have noticed that we Jews are a “stiff-necked people.” We stick to our ways, and that tenacity is one of the reasons for our survival. We even have a precept that minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu–“The customs of our ancestors are in our hands.” This phrase is instructional–keep tradition. Yet both our customs and our legal history is replete with examples when customs that have no basis have been rejected or simply left unobserved.

I believe kitniot is one such prime case, and that permitting them again to Ashkenazic Jews will make the holiday easier, more festive, affordable and healthy. For people who are limited because of additional health concerns, I hope this will also offer some necessary relief.

If you want to get a very deep understanding of the history of this minhag shtut, (“foolish custom”) I refer you again to Rabbi David Golinkin’s teshuvah on the topic, here.

A Personal Note

While I have known for a long time that kitniot were permitted (especially since my heritage is as an Italian Jew from Padua), I could not bring myself to eat them over Passover. It just didn’t feel right. I’ve struggled with this issue for a long time. Religion, after all, is often about the “kishkes.” So while I am extending permission to our community to consume kitniot and their by-products, no one should feel compelled to eat them if it doesn’t sit right with you. Do know, though, that you may eat at anyone’s house who does serve kitniot, and this has never been considered a problem by any halakhic authority that I’ve encountered.

Some Practical Guidelines

America remains an Ashkenazic country in large part. What this means is that many otherwise permissible foodstuffs have not received kosher supervision for Passover. In Israel, one easily finds labels that state, “kosher for Pesach to those who eat kitniot.” Our own relatively small marketplace is unlikely to feature many items like this (although this will be my first Passover here). Additionally, our food production system often won’t list many of the ingredients involved in our products. For example, I am told that many commercial food grade oils are filtered through paper filters that are impregnated with outright hametz.

  1. Buy all kitniot items before Passover. During Passover, any amount of hametz at all is forbidden, so that peanut oil filtered through hametz filters would be a no-no. Before the holiday begins, though, the potentially microscopic amounts of hametz are nullified according to the principle of batel b’shishim–one part in sixty is cancelled out.
  2. Stick with unprocessed foods, such as rice, lentils, chickpeas or millet. Sort through them on a clean tray that has not been used in 24 hours. Take a quick look to see if there are any foreign grains visible. If there are, remove them and put your rice or beans back into a package or container until Passover.
  3. Sealed ground kitniot spices that have a heksher for the rest  of the year are acceptable. Thus, you could buy ground mustard powder and using a kosher for Pesach vinegar make your own mustard. I recommend avoiding off-brand labels, as they have less to lose if they adulterate their spices.
  4. Raw vegetables, such as green beans and corn, can be purchased during Passover.
  5. All natural peanut butter that has no additives and a heksher for the rest of the year would be acceptable. Getting your own peanuts and grinding them in a machine that is only used for this purpose (some stores have these) before Passover would be better. During Passover, we worry about contamination. Peanut butter that has additives should be avoided as there is no way to ascertain whether it contains hametz, and in this case, the additives are intentional and would not be nullified.
  6. Hekshered virgin oils made from corn, peanut or other kitniot, such as Spectrum brand, are most likely acceptable. Where there is concern is with those oils that use chemical extraction processes. These may contain hametz and we would need to assume that the manufacturer intentionally added those chemicals, so nullification before the holiday remains questionable in my mind.

Above all, enjoy your Passover preparations, your sedarim and your holiday. I’ll see you at the Red Sea!

Chag kasher v’sameach,

Rav D