Most people know that Ashkenazi Jews do not eat Kitniyot – rice, millet, lentils, beans, corn and legumes – during Passover. Few people know why. This is hardly surprising: Ashkenazim don’t know either.
This customary stringency, or custom, is strange, to say the least; it stands in stark contradiction to authoritative Jewish law. The Mishna clearly states that only the five species of grain – two varieties of wheat and three of barley– when mixed with water can rise and leaven, defined in the Torah as Chametz.
The claim of one sage that rice should be added to the list is rejected out of hand by the Talmud.
It is commonly believed that this custom came about either because wheat grains are sometimes found in rice etc., or due to the fact that rice, millet and the like are sometimes ground into a flour and might be confused with ‘real flour’. The facts, however, tell a different story.
The earliest mention of this peculiar custom is quoted in the name of R. Asher or Lunelle, a town in Provence (southern France), who died in or around 1215 CE. He states that “it is the universal custom not to eat Kitniyot during Pesach because they rise and leaven”. This claim is reiterated by R. Moshe Halawa, a Spanish rabbi of the late 14th century: “The sages of France claim that Kitniyot are forbidden…they stated this rule of thumb: ‘Anything that swells when cooked…is a minor form of Chametz’”. This very same statement is recorded by the Spanish sage Ritba in the name of “French rabbis”.
But that’s not all. Jewish law forbids cooking flour or dough during Passover unless these are placed directly into vigorously boiling water, in which case the intense heat prevents fermentation. Two medieval French authorities declare that Kitniyot may only be cooked on Pesach if they are placed directly into a boiling pot. These statements, which can only be understood in terms of the foregoing Halacha, constitute proof positive that the origin of this custom is the mistaken belief that Kitniyot can become chametz just like the five grains.
The common denominator of all the Halachic codifiers who mention this custom is easy to spot: they all resided in France. It can be readily demonstrated, however, that 100 years earlier the students of Rashi, who were active in northern France in the early 1100’s, knew nothing of this custom; they write that all manner of Kitniyot may be cooked during Pesach. R. Zerachya HaLevi, active in southern France towards the end of the 12th century, concurs. We thus conclude that this custom appeared in France towards the end of the 1100’s.
Early rabbinic responses
How did the rabbis of France respond to this anti-Halachic custom? Some tried to defend it. Knowing the claim that Kitniyot could become Chametz to be bogus, they attempted to offer alternate explanations such as those mentioned above.
Others rejected the custom out of hand. Rabbi Yerucham of Provence, for example, states plainly: “This is a foolish practice”. Rabbi Ye’hiel and Rabbi Judah, both of Paris, ignored the custom and ate Kitniyot on Pesach.
What of Germany (Ashkenaz)? The medieval authorities there were either silent or openly opposed to the custom, exemplified by this statement of Rabbi Ya’akov, son of the Rosh, in his famous work the Tur: “This is an extreme stringency and it is not the custom”.
Seeing that Jewish law and practice from time immemorial are emphatic that Kitniyot are permitted, perhaps we need to look further afield for the key to this riddle.
The Written Torah does not define the term ‘chametz’. It is the Oral Tradition that has provided the Jewish people with a working definition. But what of those without a tradition? The Karaites, lacking an oral tradition, struggled with this question. Many Karaites in the past and up to the present day consider anything fermented to be a form of chametz and do not consume vinegar and yoghurt on Pesach. As already noted, Kitniyot can be fermented and expand when cooked.
Does the custom of not consuming Kitniyot during Passover perhaps derive from a Karaite interpretation of Chametz? This possibility cannot be discounted – a number of customs and Halachic interpretations made their way into normative Judaism during the late Geonic period, the heyday of Karaitism, a fact attested to by no less an authority than Maimonides. This curious custom may simply be a further example of sectarian influences. Such an explanation does indeed fit the documented facts.
Rabbi David Bar-Hayim is the head of Machon Shilo and is a Torah visionary and scholar with mastery of Mishnah, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi, Rambam, Ramban and more. You can read more of his work at www.machonshilo.org