What is Kitniyos?
Asnoted in the introduction, the word kitniyos is often rendered into English as legumes. Yet, the actual definition of kitniyos is more complex.
The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 453) defines kitniyos as those products that can be cooked and baked in a fashion similar to chametz grains, yet are not actually chametz (meaning that they do not belong to the five species of grains: wheat, barley, spelt, oats, rye).
Although there are various customs as to exactly what constitutes kitniyos, the following items are generally included: beans, buckwheat, corn, fenugreek, lentils, millet, mustard, peas, poppy seeds, rapeseed, rice, sesame seeds, soybeans and sunflower seeds.
According to Rema (453:1), aniseed and coriander seeds are not kitniyos. The Magen Avraham recommends that one avoid eating these seeds because other grains, some of which could turn to chametz, are often mixed in with them. However today special equipment is used to ensure that no foreign particles are mixed in, and one can therefore find aniseed and coriander with a Kosher for Pesach certification.
Origins of the Custom
Although we do not know exactly when the custom of refraining from kitniyos began, one of the earliest sources to mention the custom is Rabbi Yitzchak of Korbil’s Sefer Mitzvos Katan (Semak, 223), which notes some communities have the custom of not eating kitniyos during Pesach, even though these items are clearly not chametz.
The Semak notes the “custom of old” of refraining from kitniyos, including rice and beans in the definition. Although he writes that his mentor, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris, used to eat white beans on Pesach, he adds that it is extremely difficult to permit the practice, which is contrary to the custom.
It is noteworthy that others, aside from the aforementioned Rabbi Yechiel, objected to the custom. The Or Zarua (Vol. 2, no. 256) mentions that Rabbi Yehudah of Paris ate kitniyos on Pesach, and concludes that the custom is “mistaken.” The Beis Yosef (453) writes that we are not concerned for the custom, and the Shulchan Aruch (453:1) rules that it is permitted to eat rice and other kitniyos on Pesach.
Nonetheless, the custom was accepted in Ashkenaz communities, as the Maharil points out (Forbidden Foods on Pesach 16), and the Rema writes that it is forbidden to eat kitniyos on Pesach.
Even in later times we find an attempt to nullify the custom by the Yaavatz (Mor U’ketziah 453), who states that his father (the Chacham Tzvi) was troubled by it, and he hopes that “the pillars of the generation will agree” to abolish it.
The pillars of the generation did not agree, and the custom of kitniyos remains very much in force today. Indeed, many poskim treat the matter of kitniyos with great severity, and the Maharash (cited in Maharil, Pesach 41) even writes that eating kitniyos transgresses the prohibition of “lo sasur.”
Reasons for the Custom
Two main reasons are offered to explain why the custom of refraining from eating kitniyos was instituted.
One is that kitniyos can be easily confused with chametz. Raw kitniyos resemble the five grains in appearance, and kitniyos are processed in a similar manner to the five grains. Moreover, kitniyos can be milled into flour, made into dough, and baked into bread – or cooked into a porridge that can resemble chametz (Mishnah Berurah 453:6).
Because of the similarities between kitniyos and actual chametz, the rabbis feared that amei ha’aretz may mistakenly believe that if they can eat kitniyos on Pesach, they can also eat chametz. This reason is given by the Semak, and the Vilna Gaon (453:1) even finds a source for the concern in the Gemara (40b), which relates how Rava did not permit the use of lentil flour on Pesach in an unlearned community, for fear that it would lead to confusion and cause the mistaken eating of chametz on Pesach.
A second reason for the prohibition is that kitniyos are often grown in close proximity to the five grains. Due to this, it was common for a small amount of the five grains to become intermingled with kitniyos. There was therefore a risk that upon eating a dish of beans on Pesach, somebody could actually come to eat chametz. This reason is given by the Tur (453).
For this reason Sephardim, who eat kitniyos on Pesach, are careful to check the grains three times to make sure no chametz grains became intermingled with the kitniyos.
Severity of the Custom
The restriction on eating kitniyos is not as all encompassing as the restriction on chametz.
In contrast to actual chametz, the custom only to refrain from eating kitniyos. It is permitted to keep kitniyos on one’s property over Pesach (or even to buy kiyniyos during Pesach), and it is even permitted to derive benefit from kitniyos over the festival. Thus, one may use kitniyos for all non-eating purposes, such as fuel for candle-lighting and heating, or for pet food (Rema).
Additionally, children, people who are ill, and people whose diet is otherwise restricted and must eat kitniyos, are excluded from the custom and may consume kitniyos (after consulting with a Rav). This halachah is quite relevant to baby formulas and nutritional supplements which invariably contain kitniyos, and are used by people who have few non-kitniyos choices, if any.
However, when it comes to healthy adults, the custom of refraining from eating kitniyos is treated with some stringency. The custom applies even on Erev Pesach (from the time the prohibition against eating chametz begins; see Shevet Ha-Levi Vol. 3, no. 31 citing from Chok Yaakov 471:2 and others), and applies (unlike the gebrokts custom) even on the eighth day of Pesach.
Moreover, the custom is to be stringent even concerning kitniyos utensils, and somebody who must prepare kitniyos on Pesach should use a separate set of utensils and not regular Pesach dishes. If Pesach dishes were used for kitniyos, they should not be used in the same year for Pesach foods (Kaf Ha-Chaim 453:27; Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, cited in Erev Pesach Shechal Be-Shabbos Chap. 8, note 4; Halichos Shlomo Pesach p. 88).
Yet bedieved, food cooked in a kitniyos pot, and even food into which a kitniyos food was added but is annulled by the majority of the mixture, is permitted for consumption (Mishnah Berurah 9).
Foods that are not Kitniyos
It is the common custom to consider a number of foods as not being included in the custom of kitniyos. Examples are potatoes, coffee, tea, garlic, nuts, radishes and olives (see Sha’arei Teshuvah 453:1; Chayei Adam 127:7).
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. 3, no. 63) likewise writes that peanuts are not kitniyos, though those who have the custom, should refrain from eating peanuts on Pesach.
The Iggros Moshe explains that the custom to not eat kitniyos developed differently from other prohibitive customs, and he therefore rules that only foods that we know were specifically included in the custom are forbidden. A similar point is made by the Chok Yaakov (453:9).
It is based on this reasoning that Rav Moshe explains the accepted custom not to consider potatoes to be kitniyos, even though logically they should be (they are cooked in a similar manner, and they can be made into flour). The custom of kitniyos dates to well before the time potatoes were introduced to Europe (in the 16th century), so that potatoes are a “new” vegetable that was not included in the custom.
Similar logic has been employed as a basis for permitting the consumption on Pesach of quinoa, which has only recently been introduced to the Northern Hemisphere from its native South America, and was never in the past considered to be kitniyos because it wasn’t part of the diet of those who refrain from eating kitniyos.
A difficulty with the approach of the Iggros Moshe is the fact that the common custom is to consider corn to be kitniyos, even though it, too, is a relatively new introduction to our diet (Mishnah Berurah 453:4). It is possible that because of the great similarity of corn to other kitniyos it is included in the custom in spite of its being relatively new, and the question of whether this logic can also be applied to quinoa remains open. In addition, quinoa is often packaged in plants that also package wheat and barley, and one must be careful to check the grains carefully to ensure that no chametz grains are present.
As a rule, spices are not considered kitniyos, as noted above concerning anise and coriander. The Taz (462:3) notes that all spices should be checked before Pesach to ensure that no chametz-grains are mixed in, making special note elsewhere (453:1) of anise and coriander seeds. It is of course best to purchase such spices with special kosher for Pesach certification.
The Mishnah Berurah (13) notes that anise and kimmel (which might include fennel, cumin and caraway ) should not be used during Pesach for fear that chametz grains became intermingled with the seeds.
There is a question amongst poskim as to whether kitniyos derivatives, such as oils derived from them (e.g. corn oil), are considered part of the custom and thus prohibited for consumption over Pesach.
Some authorities, such as the Maharsham (1:183), permit the oils of kitniyos (shemen kitniyos) on Pesach, provided the kitniyos did not come in contact with water and the oil was produced before Pesach. The reason for this is that the prohibitive custom only applies to forms of the kitniyos that share the characteristics of grain, but does not apply to a liquid extracted from them.
This leniency is not widely accepted, and the selection of kosher-for-Pesach oils is therefore quite limited, though oil from olives, palm, coconut and walnuts are certainly acceptable for Pesach use. Cottonseed oil presents a special case, because the fruit from which the oil is extracted – cottonseed – is not edible. The Minchas Yitzchak (Vol. 3, no. 138, sec. 2) suggests that cottonseed oil is kitniyos, yet reconsiders his position in a subsequent teshuvah (Vol. 4, no. 114, sec. 3; see also Mikra’ei Kodesh, Pesach Vol. 2, no. 60, who rules leniently and also cites Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky who was lenient).
The common custom in the United States is not to consider cottonseed oil as kitniyos, but in Eretz Yisrael some refrain from using it. Canola oil involves similar yet slightly different questions, and the common custom in Israel is to refrain from using it.
Sweeteners and Other Derivatives
Today, many products in the food industry, including a number of artificial sweeteners, are made from kitniyos (especially corn). These kitniyos products are known as kitniyos shenishtanu – kitniyos that have been transformed into a new product.
Because the final product is so far removed from the original kitniyos, most authorities maintain that there is no concern in using them for Pesach.
Another important point in the matter of derivatives is that where the kitniyos is not processed with water – meaning in a situation where even if the kitniyos were grains, the food would not be prohibited – the customary prohibition does not apply (Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav 453:5). This emerges from the wording of a number of rishonim who write that the prohibition applies to cooking the kitniyos.
Based on this distinction, there is no prohibition on eating popcorn on Pesach – though in a practical sense there is no supervision on the kernels guaranteeing that they didn’t come into contact with water. Rice crispies cereals are generally not permitted, because the rice is treated with water in the process of forming the rice crispies.