Kitniyot: Not Quite Hametz

Although rice, millet, corn, and legumes are not among the five prohibited grains on Passover, Jews of European origin have traditionally avoided them during the holiday.

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Potatoes provide an interesting contrasting case. Unlike peas, potatoes do make a flour that is used quite effectively in Pesachdik (Yiddish for "Kosher for Passover) cakes and brownies. Nevertheless, potatoes are not prohibited. Indeed, one of the leading halakhic (Jewish legal) authorities of the 20th century, Rav Moshe Feinstein, has argued that potatoes were initially not prohibited because they simply weren't known in Europe. Once they became known, they weren't prohibited because there were early authorities that considered the kitniyot prohibition a "foolish custom." On this basis, Rav Feinstein permitted peanuts; he also permitted peanut oil with the additional reason that it was a derivative.

According to this line of thinking, items that were traditionally prohibited could continue to be prohibited, but there was no basis for expanding upon the list of prohibited items (Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim 3. 63).

Over the past decade, peanut oil has become far less available for Passover. Safflower oil, which had also been considered acceptable, is also hard to find. The most commonly available oil now is cottonseed oil. But that oil will also probably disappear from our shelves, since many Israeli rabbinic authorities have declared it unacceptable. Ignoring Rav Feinstein's reticence to expand the prohibition, most kashrut authorities in North America are quick to adopt new strictures.

Kosher, but Perhaps Educationally "Unacceptable"

On the other hand, some commercially produced foods that use potato starch and/or matzah cake meal to create imitations of regular, hametz foods--such as Pesach noodles, breakfast cereal, and cookies--while technically Pesachdik, might be avoided for precisely the same reason that kitniyot originally were. How is one to teach a child (or an adult) what hametz is if many of the primary forms of hametz in a child's diet are also available in fairly indistinguishable forms on Passover? Surely, technology will soon yield Pesachdik sliced bread! Foodies will quickly aver that Passover noodles are inferior and will never be confused with the real item, but then, what is the point of buying them in the first place?

Some Final Thoughts

While one is prohibited to own, use, or benefit from hametz, Ashkenazic tradition for kitniyot only applies to consumption. One does not have to sell one's kitniyot along with one's hametz. Furthermore, one can continue to use cornstarch-based bath powder. Even medicines that use corn starch as a binder are permitted.

Especially in Israel, where there is a substantial Ashkenazic minority, kitniyot can be a very divisive issue. North America has far fewer Sephardim, but the dual trends of expanding lists of prohibited items and a backlash among liberal Ashkenazim, who are limiting or abandoning their observance of avoiding kitniyot, can lead to serious divisions in the Jewish people. Therefore, people should be aware that someone who does not eat kitniyot may still eat from the dishes of someone who does eat kitniyot. It is appropriate to be strict on Passover; it may not be appropriate to make "little things" into such a big thing that it separates Jew from Jew.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.