Free the Kitniyot!

The NYT today features a story on whether Quinoa is Kosher for Passover, highlighting the controversy among what it calls “observant” or “Orthodox” Jews.  But although the story is informative, it completely misses the point.

The only reason why quinoa would not be considered “כשר לפסח” is that people might confuse it for corn, lentil, peas,rice, or beans or other grains not allowed on Passover.  But there’s a problem: corn, lentil, peas, rice, and beans are allowed on Passover. 

These other grains are known as “kitniyot” (קיטניות), which literally means “small ones.”  Are they kosher for Passover?  Yes!  They are not leavened, and they are nowhere banned in the Torah or the Talmud.  But the hyper-legalistic ones, of course, had to figure out some way to make things difficult.  Thus, according to the Orthodox Union (which should know):

In addition to the Torah’s restrictions on owning, eating and benefiting from chametz, an Ashkenazic minhag developed in the middle ages to not eat certain foods known collectively as “kitnios”. The Mishnah Berurah (453:6 & 464:5) cites three reasons for the minhag (a) kitnios is harvested and processed in the same manner as chametz, (b) it is ground into flour and baked just like chametz [so people may mistakenly believe that if they can eat kitnios, they can also eat chametz], ( c ) it may have chametz grains mixed into it [so people who eat kitnios may inadvertently be eating chametz]. Although initially there were those who objected to the minhag, it has become an accepted part of Pesach in all Ashkenazic communities.

This “minhag,” or custom, is just stunningly unpersuasive.  You can’t eat kitniyot because you can grind them into flour?  Then why is matza meal kosher for Passover?  It might have chametz in it?  Well, then maybe I should set up a hermetically sealed bubble chamber so as to avoid breathing chametz.

This custom isn’t just silly; it’s downright wrong.  First, it divides Ashkenazim from Sephardim: the latter have very sensibly rejected the absurdities the Ashkenazim, but then this means that observant Jews from different ethnic backgrounds can’t eat together.  That’s self-destructive.

Moreover, Pesach is a festival of celebration and thanksgiving.  God does not tell the Israelites that they are to practice self-denial.  The point is to remember how God freed us from oppression, and to pray for such freedom for all (“Let all who are hungry come and eat.”).  It is not to engage in a perpetual game of one-upmanship to see who can be more technical and strict than someone else.

Besides, it’s wrong on its own terms.  In the Bavli 114b, Rav Huna says that “beets and rice” can be used on the Seder plate instead of meat.  Rice!  On the Seder plate!  But obviously, Rav Huna was only one of the authors of the Talmud: what did he know?

Fortunately, we have seen the development of the Kitniyot Liberation Front to stop this nonsense.  There is a difference between a healthy respect for tradition and a slavish devotion to nonsensical hyperlegalism.  Go ahead, eat you corn, beans, peas, rice, lentils and quinoa.  And if anyone tells you you’re violating Passover, tell them to re-read their Talmud.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

16 thoughts on “Free the Kitniyot!”

  1. Hyperbolic pietism, especially if it’s a nuisance, especially if you can nail others for not having enough of it, and especially if it’s observable by others, is one of the great pleasures religion affords the small minded and ignorant.

  2. this means that observant Jews from different ethnic backgrounds can’t eat together. That’s self-destructive.

    Aren’t the kosher laws acknowledged as specifically being intended to keep Jews from eating with other people? Sure, you can complain that when “other people” means “other Jews” this is taking things too far, but if that’s what they’re designed to do they’re going to do it.

  3. Wow, half a lifetime ago I spent the better part of a year at a Ba’al Teshuvah yeshiva. I’d forgotten just how obsessive the Orthodox could get.

  4. I’m reminded of the joke which has as its punchline, “Moses, do whatever you want.” The point being that hyperlegalism, nonsensical or otherwise, is a big part of our tradition and complaining about it is like complaining about gefilte fish.

    Good Yontif.

  5. My favorite oddity is the Kosher L’Pesach Diet Coke. Now, Passover Coke I can understand: the rule on Corn is (as pointed out in the post) silly, extending it to Corn Syrup doubly so – but if those are your rules, then saying that during Pesach you can only drink Coke made with cane sugar instead of corn syrup is consistent. But what’s the problem with Diet Coke? It doesn’t contain corn syrup, just aspartame. Did they get special Kosher L’Pesach aspartame?

  6. Warren: it’s just that all manufactured food needs the label, to certify that the equipment was properly cleaned/blessed before use. One might worry that the Diet Coke shares equipment with the non-Passover regular Coke, for instance.

  7. As a liberal Ashkenazic Jew, I feel free to embrace or reject any tradition. I don’t keep kosher, yet on Passover, I follow the Ashkenazic prohibitions. For me, it’s about a connection with my past. Although the prohibitions are a pain, I still manage to eat well during Pesach.

    I don’t think God likes me better for following the prohibitions, or is angry at my friend who eats pizza. Next year–who knows?–I might change my mind.

  8. Jonathan,

    Thanks for the information. I’ve always wondered about those things. What do peas and Coca-Cola have to do with leavened bread?

    One entirely unconvincing explanation I came across claimed that items that were kept in open barrels in the market, near the flour, were prohibited because maybe some flour got mixed in accidentally, or by the wind.

    My own idea is that there tends to be an unhealthy (IMO) “holier than thou” tendency to show how much more careful about observance one is than one’s neighbor. This seems to extend not only to Pesach foods, but to other matters as well.

  9. Jonathan- It seems to me in your last paragraph you go against your own statement of “there is a difference between a healthy respect for tradition and a slavish devotion to nonsensical hyperlegalism”. The Ashkenazic tradition you cite re Kiniyos is legalism which you and many commenters want to call Hyper- but is normative. It is the long standing observed standard and is hardly a new chumrah or extra stringency. For most of us of at least “middle-age” the available range of Pesach food is much greater than during our youths. (Matzah, hard boiled eggs,and horseradish (all of which I still love) were all I cold pack for my school lunch. So to complain that now you cannot eat Quinoa is to make a big tzimmes out of nothing.
    Larry Birnbaum make reference to a joke but Moses, but you may recall the Aggadah about Moshe standing in the back of the talmudic academy and not recognizing the Torah they debated as what he brought down from Sinai. We are not Torah Jews only- for that perhaps go speak to the Karaites- from Ezra after the Babylonian Captivity all the way through the Rambam- I will leave it there- the definition of it is to be a normative observant Jew has been ‘refined’. So to say something in not written in Torah or Talmud is not a telling objection. Recall “a healthy respect for tradition”.

  10. Arguments over kitniyot (and quinoa) make a lot more sense when understood as a debate over who gets to make the rules, not over the content of the rules.

  11. @max ellis — your argument makes theoretical sense, but would have a lot more purchase if the same people who argue for the kitniyot prohibition on the grounds of changing conditions were not also screaming at anyone who wants to continue to make new rulings that liberalize things as not following Judaism and as abandoning the tradition. Somehow it’s always okay that they make things more stringent, but if someone were to try to legitimize a Bat Mitzvah, it’s the beginning of paganism.

    That’s why Lazarus nails it: the kiniyot injunctions are about a certain group of people making rules and enforcing them on others, not about Torah (understood broadly). It’s just a nasty bit of authoritarianism that we don’t need and that undermiens both Jewish spirituality and Klal Yisrael.

  12. As a non-Jewish person, I just want to agree, a bit, with Joe, because I think he is recognizing an important emotional part of this. As annoying as it is for anyone, of any tradition, to have someone else tell them they’re doing it wrong, whatever the “it,” I have also come to see that for some people, rules are comforting. And many people have an intolerance to change that is almost like a physical allergy, and if the rest of us think of it that way, it becomes much less irritating. You wouldn’t tell someone allergic to nuts to eat them, so why not let people do it their way, in their own house of worship? If it makes people feel closer to God, and helps them behave better the rest of the week, then maybe on balance it is a good thing, even if they may be technically wrong.

    I learned this firsthand when I heard that some churches were taking out the kneelers. All of a sudden I understood the Latin Mass folk more. Who the bleep is trying to take away my bleeping kneeler???? Bleeping bleepers! You know? I even think maybe those Anglicans and Episcopalians who are empowered enough to actually split their congregations over how to treat gay people are doing what they’re supposed to do, because the anti-gay ones are just taking a step on their path, that I believe will eventually lead them to what I regard as the right answer, which is that they’re wrong, but maybe they’ll never find it out if they don’t take the step. Because this process will never end, and by following it, maybe they will see that. Eventually we’d all end up with nowhere to go. Which is a long way of saying I agree with Zasloff that it is too bad when these things split people up. Yet you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, oftentimes.

  13. A friend of mine was raised in the Reform Jewish movement, and is old enough to recall when Gates of Prayer, the 1975 revision of the Reform prayer book, was released. Some of the older members of her congregation were outraged at how much this new siddur deviated from tradition.

    Issues of Jewish law aside, people can get weird and touchy about ancestral traditions. On top of that, Passover is the season for Jews to indulge their inner OCD demons.

    Personally I can put up with no kitniyot for eight days, but I just wish my co-religionists (within the Orthodox world) weren’t so hell-bent (ahem) on piling on new restrictions, Passover and otherwise, that our ancestors in the altische heimland had never heard of.

  14. Dude, religion IS silly. There’s no sense trying to have a rational argument about it. If Jews could eat bacon just once, they’d abandon kashrut, and if Catholic clergy tried consensual sex with adults, they’d abandon celibacy. There’s tremendous joy in just doing what you want as long as you don’t harm others. I observe no religion and no holidays, eat what I want, screwed who I wanted before I was married (as long as they wanted to also, of course), drank what I want, and my life was (and is) pretty damn good.

  15. “There’s tremendous joy in just doing what you want as long as you don’t harm others.” Many of us find this rule surprisingly compatible with religious belief, though depending on how careful you are about hurting others, and how honest we are, it’s also in the end not completely possible. Which keeps it interesting, I guess. But I must say your ideas about religion are oversimplified. (Having said that, I kinda agree with you about celibacy. I’m not sure how that makes anyone a better person.)

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