The Kitniyot Problem

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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,

9 thoughts on “The Kitniyot Problem

  1. Chaos

    Hmm, i thought i’d recently heard of a ruling in which one of the certification boards had opted in favor of corn syrup, which convinced me that they were all hopelessly on the take and i might as well just forget the whole thing and do what i like. I can’t find this, now, so maybe i dreamed it, though this article hints at it, noting that corn syrup can be kosher if the rabbis are looking at it carefully enough.

    I fall pretty heavily on the side of “use my own judgement”, and am probably a terrible role model for anyone: i don’t avoid beans and such-like at all. I eat rice in restaurants, but not at home. I make no claim to being Sephardic — i just don’t think my Torah needs a big hedge around it.

    I defer to the certification boards in terms of what products made out of actual wheat i consider permissible (i’ve certainly heard the argument that we should all be eating injera for Passover, and that doesn’t seem like the thing to me, so, no). But i serve non-Kosher wine at my seder (as well as the sweet stuff), and not everyone drinks it, but a number of people do. I know, there are reasons for certifying wine, but… i’ve asked myself, if my dad gets to come to my seder and share a good wine recommendation with Amy’s dad, does that really detract from our appreciation of our freedom? And i decided no, and that people who disagree can drink the sweet stuff.

    Of course, if everyone did what i did and used their own personal interpretations, there wouldn’t be any shared traditions to interpret. I can’t deny that that’s a risk. But, for me, it’s sufficient that my diet during Passover be substantially different than my diet the rest of the year, that i be consistent about a few things, and a little bit consistent about a larger number of things. Do my inconsistencies tend to often align with what i happen to want to do? Probably. It is what it is.

  2. Chris Cobb

    If I may toss in a clueless question from an outside perspective, why have the category of kitniyot? I know that V. says in his second paragraph that “this makes sense,” in that “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.” Why is giving up corn bread (or corn flakes, for that matter) a better reminder than giving up chicken franks, which are just as ground and probably more processed? Is part of kitniyot‘s value as a reminder derived from the fact that it requires discussion and interpretation? I am genuinely wondering why likeness is an important principle here.

    I am not an observer of Lenten customs myself, but for those who observe them, the point of Lent seems to be giving up something important, with no criterion of similitude involved, though it often (and traditionally) involves giving up foods of some sort. The fasting for Ramadan seems like another example of temporary abstinence in eating as part of a significant religious observance. Against that background, the kitniyot principle in Passover observance seems distinctive and therefore important but not for a reason that I, from my clueless outside perspective, can readily discern.

  3. Vardibidian

    The history of kitniyot is complicated. Of course. One important thing is the concern that chumetz and kitniyot may be mixed together in storage, thus leading a person to consume chumetz when they thought they were eating kitniyot; this is still considered to be an issue, and why the rabbinical councils and kashrut organizations inspect factories and farms (there was a recent complaint that quinoa was being transported in sacks that had previously held barley) to make sure that they are separate.

    The second, though, is probably more important to the question you ask, which is the hedge around the Torah. This is often described as being a necessary buffer to prevent people from being mistaken about the actual law: if some am ha-aretz sees you eating corn bread, he will think it’s OK to eat bread and proceed to eat wheat bread. Thus the buffer. How this applies to soda with or without corn syrup and does not apply to kosher-for-Passover toaster waffles is where I break down completely.

    The other thing I want to underline, though, is that Passover is not at all a period of abstinence. It is a feasting observance, not a fasting observance. It’s just that the feast is different from a feast the rest of the year, and that difference is what matters. Essentially, there are three kinds of food: trayf, which may not be eaten at any time; kosher-for-Passover, which may be eaten at any time, and kosherchumetzkitniyot, which may be eaten at any time except during Passover. Any food must go into one of those categories, so we need to know the exact boundaries. The purpose of similarity, then, is to make sure that we are eating the right idea of food, as much as to make sure we are eating the right food.


  4. Michael

    A few thoughts:

    Corn was added to the kitniyot list because of the German and Yiddish word korn meaning rye (or grains in general). If you say that corn is allowed during Passover, too many people will hear that korn is allowed. Corn is still out in my world.

    Garlic was added to the kitniyot list in many households because of an error in a popular Jewish cookbook. Garlic is ok in my world.

    As for flour substitutes, the distinction is whether they swell when water is added to them. Beans and rice and peas swell, potatoes and nuts do not. That fits with the basic reasoning for banning chametz in order to honor the Exodus where there wasn’t time to let the bread rise.

    I still don’t like the recent shift to allowing more food derivatives, and still avoid corn syrup. But my mother, who says “corn syrup is not allowed,” will happily defer to the hecksher despite the ingredients list.

    If we want to have a Passover food industry, then we must be willing to defer to authority on what is allowed and what is not. The same reasoning applies if we want to be able to share meals with others during Passover. (Shared meals become orders of magnitude more difficult when they involve negotiations about allowed foods, as anyone with multiple food allergies discovers.)

    I switched during college from looking for the hecksher to reading ingredients lists and accepting mainstream prepared foods if the ingredients were ok after being unable to find a decent selection of certified Passover foods despite spending many days going to different supermarkets in the Philadelphia area. Being unable to buy fruit jam or potato chips seemed insane, but that’s where I’d have been if I had insisted on a hecksher.

  5. Chaos

    I did a bit more thinking about the toaster waffle problem. In some ways, it’s an information security problem: the letter of the law exists to protect the spirit of the law. But the processed food industry makes its money coming up with products that stick to the letter of some law without paying much attention to its spirit, and they’re very good at it. And in this particular arms race, it’s pretty difficult for the defenders to change the rules. (Mind you, that’s often true, but in this particular case, tradition is seen as being an intrinsic virtue of the system in a way that goes beyond the usual “change is annoying and expensive” issue.)

    Anyway, so the point is: you’re a user of a system in which not everyone is playing fair according to the rules you think they should be following (namely: try to keep with the spirit of the law as well as the letter). So you have to be able to say, “Y’know what, according to my Judaism, toaster waffles are not okay. I don’t care if they are Passover-branded; i am not going to eat them.” And i think you recognize this. But it leaves you with no choice except to use your own judgment (a word which one day i will learn how to spell consistently). This is annoying because it’s work and because it makes it harder to share meals, but i do think it’s simply what you’re left with.

    I also don’t see the difficulty in sharing meals as necessarily a big issue: it’s inconvenient, but the whole point of Passover in modern-day America is to be a bit inconvenient. That is to say, i don’t think about the contents of what i eat on a regular basis, so i see the fact that i have to ponder items which are offered as a feature. Cooking for seder, i’m conservative in how many ingredients i put in things. Eating meals with people later, i negotiate ingredient lists — it’s basically as if we all have a new set of food allergies for the week, but we can’t just defer the gathering until next week because we’re required to celebrate, so we make the best of it.

    Thinking about it: i mostly look for the hecksher when choosing matzah or matzah meal. That is, the rule is we can only eat wheat products if they’ve been specially treated, so if i want to eat a wheat product, i look for special treatment. For other things, i do go to ingredient lists, and don’t worry much, if at all, about certification.

  6. Dan P

    Garlic was added to the kitniyot list in many households because of an error in a popular Jewish cookbook.

    Now *that* sounds like a good story. What was the error?

  7. Dan P

    That’s…. it? Seems like the sort of thing that should be easy to walk back. Based on the stories up to this point, I was expecting something more florid.


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