Kitniyyot in Jewish Law

By Rabbi David I. Sheinkopf z'l

Leavened grains and their derivatives are forbidden during the week of Passover. Known as hametz, these include harvested wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats, or the flours produced from these grains exposed to water.

The custom developed in Ashkenazic Jewry (the Jews originally of Germany and France and their descendants in other countries ) to extend the prohibition of hametz to rice, millet, corn, seeds and all legumes. All these were forbidden as food under the term kitniyyot (from the Hebrew word katan, meaning small.)

The consensus among relatively recent authorities is that the prohibition applies only to plants that are edible, grow from the ground (not trees), and can be heaped up like grain.

Two reasons are mentioned for this restrictive custom:

  1. Grain and kitniyyot often grow in the same field. If leavened kernels of grain become mixed with kitniyyot they would be difficult to separate.

  2. Kitniyyot, like grain, are cooked in a pot. If kitniyyot were permitted, one might be misled into eating cooked cereal or an article made from one of the five grains that had leavened. One might also mistake flour of one of the five grains for flour made from kitniyyot and use the former in a way that it becomes hametz.

The custom of abstaining from kitniyyot was not adopted by the Sephardic Jews (the Jews of Spain and Portugal and their descendants in other lands).

Not only do the customs on the use of kitniyyot differ greatly between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewries, but also among Ashkenazim little unanimity exists as to the exact scope of the prohibition. Nearly all authorities agree:

  1. Jews of Ashkenazic descent may not eat kitniyyot prepared during Passover except in the cases of sickness and hunger.

  2. Mustard seeds, though not belonging to the family of legumes are prohibited because, like seeds, they grow in pods.

  3. Cotton seed oil is permitted because only edible species are included in the prohibition and cotton seeds are not edible. In addition, cotton seeds do not grow in pods.

Beyond these statements, however, there is no consensus of authoritative rabbinic opinion with regard to other issues relevant to the prohibition.

The status of peanuts and that of other plants resembling legumes remains undetermined.

R. Abraham Danzig, author of the classic halakhic compendium (Hayyei Adam, ch. 127:1), while prohibiting buckwheat beer, permits baked matzah-like products made from kitniyyot for consumption during Passover provided that they are baked in the same manner as matzot (meaning under the rules preventing actual dough from becoming leavened.

A similar view is implied by R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of the HaBaD movement, who prohibits only kitniyyot boiled in water. (Shulhan Arukh HaRav, 423:3 )

R. Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, allows the use of sesame seed oil provided that the seeds are not exposed to water before the extraction process. (Orah Mishpat, nos. 109-113)

R. Hanokh Henekh Agus, on the other hand, would make the scalding of kitniyyot in hot water (halitah) a condition for their use as sources of liquid extracts. (Marheshet, I, pp. 30-31)

Unlike R. Danzig, R. Isaac Elhanon Spector permits buckwheat beer. R. Spector, recognized in his day as the Posek Hador (chief rabbinic decisor of his generation) sees no objection to the use of water so long as the seeds are inspected for grain kernels, pulverized, and blended before Passover. (Be'er Yitzhak, p. 26)

The decision of R. Isaac Elhanon was cited by R. David Tzvi Hoffman, recognized as the supreme halakhic authority of early 20th century orthodox German Jewry. R. Hoffman permitted peanut oil and reported that his revered teacher, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, approved of sesame seed oil. (MeLamid LeHo'il, O.H., no. 88)

Other preeminent scholars, including R. Hanokh Henekh Agus (Marheshet) and R. Issakhar Berish Graubart (Divrei Yissakhar), address the question of liquid extracts from a second perspective. They disassociate kitniyyot altogether from their oils and juices, maintaining that the prohibition only applies to leguminous articles in solid form but not to the oil or juices that are derived from these articles.

Likewise, R. Hayyim Palaggi argues that if an article prohibited by custom undergoes a significant change (e.g., solid to liquid), the article loses its forbidden status and is permissible in its new form. (Hikeki Lev, I, O.H., no. 13)

Also, it should be noted, that in 1954, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik clarified remarks that he had made in a discourse before Passover on the subject of liquid extracts of kitniyyot. He stated: "I didn't decide in the discussion and didn't prohibit anything. I said that every rabbi should decide for himself." (See L. Bernstein in Challenge and Mission, p. 118 )