The Kitniyot Wars: A Peek into One of the Most Ridiculous Internal Jewish Controversies

Dear Josep,

Because of all its restrictions, Passover is a time wrought with tension over the topic of food. Food may seem to be a trivial thing to have tensions over, but hey, we’re Jews. Our lives revolve around food!

As I’ve elaborated in the past, “Passover kashrut” is even crazier than regular kashrut in every possible sense; for seven (or outside Israel–eight) days, we can’t eat any product made of one of the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats) that isn’t matzah, and the restriction is so severe that we have to actually kasher our kitchens and use special dishes and utensils for Passover to avoid even the tiniest amount of chametz (leavened grain) being found in our food.

Our community rabbi and another man kashering pots in a huge vat of boiling water last week.
Kashering pots in a huge vat of boiling water last week.

For those of us of Ashkenazi origin, however, there’s a whole additional layer. You see, because the five grains used to be stored together with things like corn, rice, and legumes, and processed in the same manner, my dear ill-advised ancestors were concerned that some of the forbidden grains might get mixed up with those other products, and therefore forbade the consumption of all of them, just to be sure. These other products are referred to as “kitniyot,” which in modern Hebrew refers to legumes.

And of course, there is a long-standing debate as to what exactly counts as kitniyot and what does not. There are two main opinions: one is that it’s only what was included in the original list of restrictions, and one is that it’s anything that can be ground into a flour that could theoretically make something resembling a grain product. The weird thing is that most rabbinical authorities hold somewhere in between. Here in Israel, bakeries and restaurants have excelled at Passover culinary innovation, creating breads and cakes and cookies from potato flour that truly resemble the real thing, and most authorities accept these as being perfectly permissible. These photos were taken by my friend Ari Moshkovski at the English Cake bakery chain shortly before Passover, and believe it or not, none of these products contain even the smallest trace of wheat, corn, or rice:

Believe it or not, these are made of potato flour and contain no wheat, corn, or rice whatsoever.

english cake pizzas

They even taste half-decent when fresh.

On the other hand, there are things considered kitniyot you would never have imagined anyone would associate with wheat. Like mustard seeds. Peanuts. Pumpkin seeds. Sesame seeds. Some people even include canola oil and quinoa. (Thank God, in our family, we don’t.)

So without bread or other grain products, and without flours or oils derived from common ingredients like corn, soy, and rice, it makes our culinary options on Passover quite limited.

And hell hath no fury like a hungry Jew.

Now, there are some Ashkenazim who have an established custom of eating derivatives of kitniyot. This opens up the possibility of eating things with oils or starches made from kitniyot, and that makes life a lot easier.

In the USA, where the vast majority of the Jewish population is Ashkenazi, most of the kosher-for-Passover products available cater to the Ashkenazi population and are therefore kitniyot-free. But in Israel, half the population is non-Ashkenazi, and the majority of the Ashkenazim are not religious and don’t particularly care about the kitniyot restriction. There are a few communities from Morocco that don’t eat kitniyot either, but even so, that leaves a rather small subset of us who won’t consume kitniyot during Passover. The factories and restaurants, particularly in areas without large concentrations of religious Ashkenazim, have little incentive to cater to our needs, so the majority of products on the shelves are non-kitniyot-free and therefore off-limits to us.

This makes a lot of Ashkenazim in Israel get their panties in a wad. Every single year around Passover time there is much grumbling and gnashing of teeth over this, and calls to cancel the kitniyot restriction once and for all. After all, it’s an old-fashioned restriction–a custom that achieved halakhic status because it was so widely observed in the community, but nonetheless, with relatively little halakhic weight. We know this because we do not treat kitniyot like chametz at all. We are allowed to cook it and feed it to our Sephardic guests in the same utensils we use for our food on Passover. Halakhically speaking, kitniyot can be “nullified,” not in sixty as with the rules about regular kashrut, but in a majority. Meaning if more than half the product is something else, and the taste of the kitniyot product is not easily discernible, it doesn’t count as kitniyot.

So we know that it’s not really chametz, and the holiday is restrictive enough when it comes to food, and it’s annoying, and why must our lives be needlessly made difficult?

But honestly, I think the whole argument is pretty ridiculous.

Yes, it’s a custom that may no longer have relevance, and yes, it does make our lives a little difficult.

But it’s just a week.

One week.

The principle that binds us to the custom is “minhag avoteinu b’yadenu”–the custom of our forefathers must be observed by us, unless there is a truly compelling reason to cancel it. And as much as everyone complains, there really is no compelling reason. You can live perfectly well on fruits, vegetables, unprocessed meats, eggs, and dairy for a week. Matzah, potatoes and sweet potatoes are perfectly acceptable sources of carbohydrates. Those who have particularly restrictive diets due to food allergies, veganism/vegetarianism, or illness can easily be granted permission to eat kitniyot on a case-by-case basis. My mother-in-law is here for Passover, and she is vegetarian and allergic to wheat, corn, and all kinds of nuts. My husband–as a rabbi–granted her halakhic permission to eat kitniyot, but she hasn’t needed to take advantage of it.

I think there are two issues that drive people to make a big deal over this. One, I think, is that the Rabbinate is overly careful at best–lazy at worst–about product labeling. A few years ago I bought a can of applesauce that listed its ingredients as 100% apples, and the kashrut stamp said it was “for consumers of kitniyot only.”

Seriously? Even if a tiny bit of corn or soy or whatever somehow got mixed in, it is surely nullified in the majority. I was so annoyed about this that I forced Eitan to ask a senior rabbi about it, and the rabbi told us it was fine for us to eat. Even in cases where there are actually kitniyot derivatives in the product on purpose, they may often be nullified in the majority. But the Rabbinate marks anything that may have any derivative of kitniyot in it as being kitniyot-only. And because we non-experts don’t actually know enough details to know whether the kitniyot is nullified or not, we just don’t eat all of them, leaving us with a relatively narrow selection of products to choose from. We feel like an oppressed minority, forced to look on as our Sephardic brethren happily consume products we might actually be able to eat but can’t because the Rabbinate couldn’t be bothered to label them accurately.

The second issue is that people eat a lot of processed foods and feel at a loss when most of those foods are suddenly off-limits to them. We don’t eat a whole lot of processed food in my home, but there are a few things that we use regularly, like mayonnaise or canned tomato sauce, that are hard to find kitniyot-free (because they are usually made with soybean or corn oil), and it’s annoying.

But you know, Lubavitcher Hassidim have even more extreme restrictions. In addition to kitniyot, they can’t eat any fruit or vegetable that hasn’t been peeled first (and therefore can’t have fruits or vegetables that can’t be peeled), and they can’t eat matzah (or any product made of matzah meal) that has come into contact with liquid. This rules out the precious matzah ball dumplings that are the one redeeming feature of traditional Ashkenazi Passover cuisine.

Thank God I'm not a Chabadnik...
They don’t look like much, but trust me, they are amazing.

So it’s pretty much eggs, chicken, and (peeled) potatoes all week. And are they complaining?!

(Well, probably. It’s our #1 coping mechanism, after all. But still.)

Basically, it comes down to this: it’s an annoying restriction that may not really be necessary, and maybe one day in the future when we have a strong enough halakhic authority that the vast majority of Jews accept (…basically, the Messiah. 😛 ) we might cancel it once and for all.

But in the meantime… it’s not really that big a deal. I know this may be hard for people to believe, but they’re not gonna die from a week without hummus.

Happy Passover!



2 thoughts on “The Kitniyot Wars: A Peek into One of the Most Ridiculous Internal Jewish Controversies

  1. I have held as you do — WHAT’S THE BIG DEAL? IT’S 8 DAYS, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! — for the 8 years we’ve lived in Israel, and before that, in the States.

    But suddenly, sort of inexplicably, I’m wondering why we hold onto minhagim that come from a past in Europe driven by fear. It occurs to me that I wish just one rabbi I totally trust would say, “Hey, kids. We’ve got our own country now. And any customs that grew from the need to protect ourselves from non-Jews who might be out to get us, or from out-of-date farming practices, or whatever, let’s just drop those, and move on to life in our own Land, with our own rules. And if our non-Ashkenazi brethren made the right choice in this case, let’s give them credit for a change, and follow their practice as a free Israeli custom.”

    It’s just a thought, because I’m not given to making my own interpretations, as a rule. But I am wearing more color than I did in the States… and I’m not quite so freaked out by kitniyot products that are clearly only oils… and I would eat at Rav Ovadia Yosef’s table (zt”l) as quickly as I would eat at Rav Auerbach’s (zt”l) — so my kashrut in Israel is more inclusive. And so on.

    May we see the day when all Jews will feel that #IsraelRules are the ones to follow — and that these laws and customs will speak of freedom and brotherhood, without confusion, and without fear or codification of fear.

    1. There is a rabbi like that–Rabbi David Bar Hayim from Machon Shilo, who advocates a return to “minhag eretz yisrael.” It used to be that people adopted the customs of the place to which they moved rather than carrying the customs with them. But that changed–and I would put my very unprofessional finger on the expulsion from Spain as to when that changed.

      On the one hand, I too see value in shedding the darkness of the exile to reestablish ourselves as a free and sovereign people in our land.

      On the other hand, there is something so deeply inspiring about how strongly the Sephardim held on to everything about their lives in Spain, and how proud they were and still are of their heritage–not their memories of Jerusalem and Zion, but of Toledo, and Burgos, and Seville. The more I learned about the story of the Spanish Jews and their descendants, the more I realized that my own Ashkenazi heritage also deserves my respect. My parents and grandparents come from a generation that scorned and tried to shed its identification with Yiddish and the shtetls. But you know… our journey through these exiles is part of our story, and part of who we are. And I think there is value in maintaining the traditions of our fathers, even the ones picked up in the darkest places that we might prefer to forget.

      I think one of our greatest survival power as a people is our collective memory, and I think Passover is a microcosm of our culture of living memory and carrying it forward.

      So… I am of two minds about concept of “breaking free from the outdated traditions of galus.” There is something beautiful about the merging of so many different Jewish cultures and traditions here in Israel; but there is also something beautiful about the collage of distinct cultures and customs, each maintaining its own flavor and color. You know what I mean?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.