Maryland Blogger Alliance

Alliance FAQs

Latest MBA Posts

April 19, 2005

The four stages of kitniot

Numbers are of great significance in Judaism: three forefathers, three festivals, seven days of creation, seven weeks of the omer, 12 tribes, 120 years that Moshe Rabbeinu lived. You get the idea.

The number for Passover is four. Four questions, four glasses of wine, four sons, four helpings of matzah ball soup your Uncle Harry has consumed (but who's counting?).

On Passover, there are also four stages of kitniot: denial, anger, fear, and humor.

What are kitniot (kit-nee-OAT)? They are a category of food prohibited on Passover by certain Jewish authorities, even though they are not chametz (also spelled hametz or chometz), meaning leaven, which is flatly prohibited on Passover. The late Rabbi Richard Israel explained it this way.

There are two major mitzvot with which we are obligated on Pesach. One is to eat matzah on the first night. The other is not to eat chametz.

The gemara tells us that matzah can be made from five types of grain and only these five: They are wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt. * * *

The gemara then continues and tells us that chametz can only come from stuff that could have been used in the production of matzah, the five grains. Nothing else can be chametz. Rice, millet and kitniot (which I will get to in a moment) cannot become chametz and therefore may not be used for matzah. And according to the Rambam, even if one kneads flour made of rice with hot water, and bakes it and processes it so that it rises and looks very much like regular dough, one may still eat this product because it is nevertheless not called chametz.

In general, kitniot are those small (kitniot - from katan) seeds or beans which look a little like grains and which need to be cooked to be eaten. Though frequently translated as legumes, aside from peas and peanuts, they are NOT legumes. And some legumes, like alfalfa leaves which can be used for salad, ARE NOT kitniot. Legumes are plants whose root nodules make nitrogen. Since "teensy-weensies" or "tinies" are not translations that are very likely to make it into ordinary English parlance, the most appropriate translation for kitniot, it seems to me, is kitniot.
The prohibition on kitniot is based on a ruling by Ashkenazi (European Jewish) authorities. Sephardic Jews (those tracing their ancestry to medieval Spain, Arab countries, etc.) do not prohibit kitniot on Passover. Various reasons have been offered for this Ashkenazic stringency, the most commonly cited reason being the possibility of confusion with chametz. Kashrut authorities have helpfully provided comprehensive lists of kitniot. Leading up to Passover, we spend a good deal of our time trying to rid our homes of chametz, but somehow, somehow, kitniot always loom large. (Cue scary music.)

The first stage of kitniot is denial. "No! Can't be! This makes life so complicated!" The Masorti movement in Israel, the Israeli version of Conservative Judaism, has chosen another form of denial. It has issued a responsum that rejects the prohibition on kitniot, going so far as to say that we may have an obligation NOT to follow the prohibition, because in their opinion, prohibiting kitniot is (not to put too fine a point on it) complete meshugas:
In our opinion it is permitted (and perhaps even obligatory) to eliminate this custom. It is in direct contradiction to an explicit decision in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 114b) and is also in contradiction to the opinion of all the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud except one (R.Yochanan ben Nuri, Pesahim 35a and parallels). It also contradicts the theory and the practice of the Amoraim both in Babylonia and in Israel (Pesahim 114b and other sources), the Geonim (Sheiltot, Halakhot Pesukot, Halakhot Gedolot, etc.) and of most of the early medieval authorities in all countries (altogether more than 50 Rishonim!).

* * * This custom is mentioned for the first time in France and Provence in the beginning of the thirteenth century by R. Asher of Lunel, R. Samuel of Falaise, and R. Peretz of Corbeil - from there it spread to various countries and the list of prohibited foods continued to expand. Nevertheless, the reason for the custom was unknown and as a result many sages invented at least eleven different explanations for the custom. As a result, R. Samuel of Falaise, one of the first to mention it, referred to it as a "mistaken custom" and R. Yerucham called it a "foolish custom".
Rabbi Israel argued that this Masorti position, while fine in Israel itself, may create problems in the United States:
I think that I personally would very likely accept this p'sak in Israel, where a very large percentage of the population eats kitniot. At least I would try and see how it felt. But it doesn't work here, and so the Conservative poskim (halachic authorities) held, because the overwhelming majority of the observant American Jewish community is Ashkenazic. Furthermore, WE can't easily buy kosher l'pesach food WITH kitniot but WITHOUT chametz. THEY can. If we buy kitniot, like peanut butter, or tofu, the chances of our getting chametz along with it, are large.
The second stage of kitniot is anger. Rarely expressed in public, this anger derives from the unavoidable fact that prohibiting kitniot is in fact meshugas and there's nothing you can do about it. No matter whether you're super-frumm or only just observant enough to remove bread from your house on Passover, you know you won't eat kitniot, because, hey, our ancestors haven't eaten kitniot in centuries. Prohibiting kitniot may be absolutely nuts (kosher for Passover nuts, of course), but you're not going to buck that history. And that makes you angry. You don't have to admit it to me, but you know it makes you angry.

The third stage is fear. Why fear? Because no one really understands kitniot. We understand shaatnez (the prohibition of wool and linen in the same garment). We understand parah adumah (the red heifer). But we don't understand kitniot. And our fear sometimes morphs into outright panic. We try to control it, but others can sense it in us right below the surface. That's when the troubled, desperate questions arise. Here's an example: This year, Passover is tricky to prepare for because it falls on motz'ai shabbat, at the conclusion of the Sabbath. On shabbat, you can't make preparations for things that are going to occur after shabbat. How then do you prepare for the seder on Saturday night? Our rabbi took us through the rules and then opened the floor to questions. One member of the congregation asked: Are we allowed to serve kitniot on erev shabbat (Sabbath evening, Friday night) after the house is all cleaned up for Passover? He was desperate, panicked. You could really sense the fear.

The fourth and last stage is humor. Unfortunately, most people do not reach this stage. Psychologists will tell you how hard it is to get beyond the fear of kitniot. (See generally Markowitz, On Transforming Our Fear of the Non-Chometzdig Yet Asur, 14 Journal of Kitniot 245 (1995)) A friend of mine has managed to achieve this lofty stage, this spiritual level at which both tradition and distance, both obligation and amusement, can co-exist. Two years ago, he found that he was receiving far too many alerts about kitniot from So he sent them a letter, which I got his permission to post here.
Dear Sirs and Rabbonim -

Thank goodness you have alerted me to the threat of kitniot. This is a very grave matter and deserves our utmost attention. It is the best possible use of the resources made available to your organization. Finally a Jewish authority that's got its priorities straight! I'm sick and tired of all those e-mails on midot tovot and derekh eretz and blah blah blah. I have always benefited from your timely information and now realize that I should support you financially too. It's not cheap to run a website. How can I make a donation? Should I mail you a check or do you take credit cards?

I only wish your seasonal anti-kitniot campaign had begun much sooner this year so that more of our holy people could be aware of this problem. Would you please make sure this suggestion is passed on to the decision makers at, or at least the committee responsible for your annual chametz/kitniot campaign? Also - and I'm sure you'll agree - the infiltration of kitniot into Ashkenazi Pesach cuisine and into our precious bodily fluids is far more serious than the threat of chametz. After all, who goes after kitniot with a candle and feather? No one and we all know it!

I would like to add that there is absolutely no record in the entire Tanach of a Jewish figure consuming kitniot during Pesach - not even one hint of it in all of Shemot. Now that's something you can take to the bank. (Disclaimer: In no ways is this intended to offend members of Shas or their supporters in Eretz Yisrael. I am not a Shinui voter.) Do you think if more Jews knew Krav Maga then kitniot would not be such a problem? Maybe we should be promoting Krav Maga as a possible solution. What do you think?

We are fighting powerful interests in the legumes and rice industries. The farm lobby is notorious for its stranglehold on Congress, filling the void left by our favorite lobby which now seems to focus on the Administration. I am proud that at least one Jewish organization (Y-O-U!) does not compromise our most important and indeed seminal religious principles due to pressure from the gentiles and - wouldn't surprise me - apikoras achim who make their living in the legumes and rice industries. By the way, I read that wild rice is not actually rice at all, but some sort of grass. Is this true, and if so can we eat wild rice at our seder? During the year, I love wild rice with chicken.

I have reliable information from an Israeli intelligence official, who made me swear to not reveal his identity so please don't ask who, that the short range missiles the Palestinians have been lobbing from Gaza are actually filled with kitniot. Boy, they really know how to hit us where it hurts. This explains why no one has actually died so far from these missiles. Like I say, the Palestinians are so sinister they've set out to cause mass panic among the Ashkenazim and ethnic strife with our Jewish brothers of the Spanish diaspora.

So while the whole world has practically panicked over the war in Iraq, you are one of the few who see the forest through the trees. The outcome of Operation Iraqi Freedom was never in doubt, but the future of kitniot certainly is. Who observes Tu B'Av anymore other than the speed daters and the Lubavitch on Capitol Hill? Where will it stop?

The threat of kitniot is so serious I have written a letter directly to Thomas Ridge, who I'm sure you of all people know is the new Secretary of Homeland Security. I sent it via UPS so that I would have a signature of receipt. I can send you a copy of the receipt if you'd like, though it wasn't Mr. Ridge who actually signed for the letter (go figure). Anyway, I have been told they are drawing up plans to protect America's predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish citizens, including me, from this horrible form of culinary terrorism. I'm so happy. That'll really stick it to the people who complain about high taxes.

I need not mention what kitniot could lead to: Mixed dancing, premature withdrawal from Yehuda and Shomron, CARD PLAYING ON SHABBAT! I can tell you straight out that among the members of my synagogue who go jogging on Shabbat, those that jog so far as to go outside of the eruv are also probably eating kitniot this Pesach. Why don't people see what a horrible influence it can have? One thing leads to another. It's always something.

Well, best regards, a chag kasher bli kitniot sameach to you and your family, and keep up the good work!

Martin I.
Potomac, Maryland

P.S. Are you in Sharon, Massachusetts? Isn't one of the Safam singers a Chazzan in your community? Please give him my regards. I have all their albums, along with Avram Fried's.
May we all achieve this fourth stage of kitniot. And a chag kasher v'sameach to everyone.

UPDATE (4/06): The return of kitniot. Kitniyot Liberation Front.