The Kitniyot Problem
11 April 2012, 10:06 PM
The kitniyot question, in a nutshell, is how to decide what foods are like other foods. Y’all know, I imagine, that Jews (those of us who keep Passover) give up bread, that is to say ordinary leavened bread, for the whole week. Technically, we give up chumetz, bread that is made with wheat, spelt, barley oats or rye. We also give up other foods made from those plants, which are considered to be chumetz, except for the unleavened matzah which is made under certain strict conditions. For a week, we don’t eat bread—we don’t eat sandwich bread or baguettes or rolls or pita or bruschetta or any of that stuff. The point being, more or less, to remind us that it’s Passover, that we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt and the Divine brought us out with a strong hand, and an outstretched arm, and with signs and wonders. There was no time for our ancestors to bake bread, so we voluntarily give up bread for eight days to identify with them. Not that difficult, actually, and it does (in my experience) keep my mind focused on the holiday. I never get to the end of the day during Passover without being reminded that it is Passover.
Now comes the complicated part: you know how we don’t just give up bread-like-stuff, we give up everything that’s made with those five grains? Well, we also give up things that are made with things that are like those five grains. Which makes sense: if we give up wheat bread but eat corn bread all week, Passover is less present in our minds than if we give up corn bread, too. So there’s this category of kitniyot, things that are similar to chumetz, which we give up as well.
Digression: By we, here, I’m speaking about Ashkenazic Jews; Sephardic Jews have different customs. These customs (minhag) have something of the force of Law. That is, in the absence of any really good and persuasive reason to abandon a minhag, you are responsible for upholding it and passing it along to your children. As you would expect, the Rabbis have always been conservative in those choices. So it’s not like I can declare myself a Sephard for a week and eat rice. I mean, I can do that, but then I can just have a nice ham on rye, too. But the Sephardim can eat rice during Passover and still be keeping; and that I can’t do. Different people, different customs. It’s how it works.
So what is kitniyot? Rice, buckwheat, millet. Obvious. Also sesame seeds. Also beans, lentils, peas, soybeans, chickpeas, and other legumes. Why? Because those things are like the other things. The category is actually something close to edible seeds in pods (see this OU article), because in a general way, you can take those seeds and grind them like wheat and make a flour. On the other hand, we don’t count potato starch or nut flour as kitniyot, and it’s much more common to use those things for making biscuits than it is to use mustard seed or lentils. But that’s the tradition, and that’s how it goes.
There are arguments, within the tradition, of whether, having disallowed soy, for instance, it is permissible to use soybean oil to cook with, because after all, soybean oil isn’t much like anything you would do with the five grains. And what about high-fructose corn syrup? I was taught that it was no good for Passover, because it’s essentially corn—but then, it isn’t really much like chumetz, is it? Rabbis have different opinions about peanuts, and different opinions about peanut oil, of course. Caraway seeds are explicitly allowed, although one is supposed to examine them carefully to make sure there isn’t any chumetz mixed in with them. Lots of rules, lots of interpretations. There’s an annual six hundred page digest that includes a list of permissible brands of various things, and the Chicago Rabbinical Council has kindly indicated recommended spray deodorants. The OU and the CRC and other groups will happily guide you away from companies who
don’t schmear them enough are insufficiently careful to keep flour dust out of their factories.
Which brings us to the other half of the kitniyot problem. Ashkenazi such as YHB who wish to keep kosher during Passover (but not for the other fifty-one weeks) are faced with a choice. We can assign the first half of the kitniyot problem to some Board of Kashrut somewhere and hope that (against all odds and evidence) they are not on the take, or we can use our own judgment. The second seems obvious, but in addition to the problem of individual judgments not adding up to a community tradition, there’s (for YHB, at least) the problem of trying to ascertain whether I think green peas should be OK for Passover because they honestly aren’t much like barley, or whether I think green peas should be OK for Passover because I like green peas. Is a bit of corn syrup sweetener enough to make my can of soda chumetz? The answer seems to depend on how thirsty I am, which is not quite rigorous.
And then—it’s obvious to me that toaster waffles are not OK for Passover. When I go to the store and see all the stuff that is obviously not OK for the purposes of keeping Passover in mind, and then have to decide if it’s OK to eat the ice cream, well, if I want to eat the ice cream, I’m going to eat it, even if it turns out that I accidentally got the kind that has corn syrup sweetener. Because: toaster waffles. Am I right? In fact, corn on the cob. Because: toaster waffles.
So. I can use my own judgment, which frankly is not to be trusted, because I am naturally biased in favor of the things I want. Or I can give the job of judgment to the authorities who frankly are not to be trusted either. And this is all up for grabs because of how difficult it is to tell if X is enough like Y.
Is this job enough like the way I want to spend my day? Is this manuscript enough like a book? Is this meal enough like nutrition? Is this house enough like a home? Is this haircut enough like handsome? Is this candidate enough like my ideal? Is this policy enough like justice? Do I make all these judgments myself, or do I let some authority make them for me?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,