ARE OATS REALLY CHAMETZ?
Acknowledgment: The following inquiry was inspired by a drasha given by my friend Oren Ephraim at Young Israel of Phoenix on Shabbat HaGadol 5783.
All together now: “Wheat, barley, rye, spelt, oats.” These are the five grains we learned constitute chametz. Since there are differences of opinion about so many other translations from Hebrew to English, most notably concerning species of animals and birds that aren’t kosher, are we really sure about the identification of these five?
There is no disagreement about wheat and barley, and very little about rye and spelt, but oats are another matter.
Our exposition will rely on the salient points of Rabbi Michael J. Broyde’s post on TorahMusings.com, as well as the posted comments on it, and the contrasting views of Professor Yehuda Felix a”h of Bar Ilan University, who wrote extensively about the flora and fauna of Israel (i.e. botany and zoology).
To begin, as already noted, traditionally the five grains have been identified as stated on DailyHalachah.com, which summarizes as follows:
“The Gemara in Pesahim (p. 35) and Menahot (p. 70) discusses the five grains. In Hebrew, they are Hita, Se’orah, Kusemet, Shifon and Shibolet Shual. Hita is wheat. Se’orah is barley. The traditional translation of Kusemet is spelt, and Shifon is rye. Shibolet Shual is classically identified as oats. This is based on Rashi who offers the vernacular “Avina” as translation. Avina in French is oats. This is also the first interpretation of the Aruch, as well as other Rishonim of Ashkenaz, including the Bartenura’s commentary on the Mishna.
“Only these five grains are susceptible to becoming Hames [Chametz]. Accordingly, only these grains can be used to make Masa [Matza]. Only a grain that can potentially become Hames may be used for Masa [Matza]. There are other Halachic ramifications of being classified a grain. Only dough made from these grains is obligated in separating Hallah [Challah]. Also, only these five grains can constitute bread to recite the Beracha of Hamosi [Hamotzi] and Birkat Hamazon.
“In recent years, there was controversy surrounding the identification of Shibolet Shual as oats. Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Felix published a book through Bar Ilan University about the botany of Eres Yisrael in the times of the Mishna. Based on his research, he brought proofs that Shibolet Shual cannot mean oats. First, he claims oats did not exist in Eres [Eretz] Yisrael in the times of the Mishna. Moreover, oats have different characteristics than the other four grains. For example, oats do not contain gluten, whereas the other four grains do.
“If he is correct, oats cannot be used to make Massot [Matzos]. They also would never become Hames [Chametz], and they would not be obligated in Hallah [Challah] or Birkat Hamazon. Nevertheless, the modern Poskim, including Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Elyashiv and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, concur that we must be strict and treat oats as potential Hames. Rashi’s identification cannot be overturned based on academic findings. The Rambam has already established that tradition and custom are the basis of Halacha. A recent populist article claiming that Rashi was wrong and that oats are not Hames [Chametz]is not only without any scholarly support, but it is presumptuous and reflects the authors bias against the rabbinic establishment.
“Not only do the Poskim stand by the identification of Shibolet Shual as oats to treat it as Hames, but they also permit someone with Celiac to fulfill the Misva [Mitzvah] of Masa [Matza] with oat Masa [Matza]. Of course, it is better to bypass the controversy altogether and eat spelt Masa, if possible.”
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde cites a more detailed account of the rulings about oats, making the following points:
- “The earliest source I am aware of to discuss this topic is the Aruchs.v. שבל which quotes two views, the second of which is that שבולת שועל is oats and the first is that it is a sub-species of barley named segala. It is true that a number of rishonim adopt the second view in the Aruch, translating שבולת שועל as avina, the Latin word for oats. In that group are Rabbenu Gershom (Menachot70b) and Rashi (Pesachim 35a and Menachot 70b) as well as many others. On the other hand, there are a large number of rishonim who do not, and who make it clear that they think that שבולת שועל is a sub-species of barley called in Latin segala, a sub-species of barley. This group of rishonim has been given considerable support by the reappearance of the Rambam’s commentary on the Mishnah Kilaim 1:1 [in Hebrew; translate into English with Google Translate] with the Arabic correctly translated (by Rabbi Kafach) where Rambam is clear that he is of the view that שבולת שועל is not oats at all.
- “The Gemara (Pesachim35a and Mishnah, Kilaim1:1) states directly that whatever exactly שבולת שועל is, it is a sub-species of barley, and this is cited by many rishonim. Oats is clearly not a part of the barley family – it is a distinct species of grain, unlike segala, which is a form of barley. Segala and barley cross breed, and oats and barley do not.
- “Furthermore, the Mishnah in Kilaim1:1 indicates that שבולת שועל and שיפון and barley can all cross-breed, which is simply false for oats (but true for segala). This ability to crossbreed is explicitly codified in Shulchan AruchYD 297:14 and thus the classification of oats as שבולת שועל is inconsistent with the text of the Shulchan Aruch.
- “Indeed, if one simply looks at the plants and the grain themselves, it is clear that oats do not even look like barley, unlike segala (which does).
- “Furthermore, the Jerusalem Talmud in Challah1:1 notes that שבולת שועל grows in a row, which is consistent with the definition of segala (also known as two-rowed barley) and not for oats.
- “One can say with some confidence that oats simply do not fit the botanical description found for שבולת שועל in the Mishnah, Talmud, Shulchan Aruchor, later codes. This fact casts significant doubt on the correctness of the definition of many rishonim who translate שבולת שועל into Latin and call it avena or oats and this further inclines me to think that Rambam is correct and that שבולת שועל has to be a sub-species of barley. (No less a contemporary authority that Rav Sternbach in Teshuvot Vehanhagot 1:302 notes that our “oats” (which he calls “Quakers”) are not שבולת שועל, a view seconded by Yad Chanoch, 22.
“Indeed, once one realizes that שבולת שועל might not be oats but a sub-species of barley, many other rules make sense, such as the listing of mixable grains found in Yoreh Deah 324:2, which only actually make sense if שבולת שועל is a type of barley and not if it is oats.”
Given all these points favoring the conclusion that oats aren’t chametz, do we change the halacha? Rabbi Broyde answers, “It is of course true that the tradition found in the achronim to identify oats as the fifth grain (see Chayei Adam 1:50:3, Mishnah Berurah, Sha’ar Hatziyun 453:20 and Aruch Hashulchan 453:3) is the common one of the last centuries (and perhaps reflects the distance Jews have socially experienced from many agrarian matters for centuries). One could make a claim that for most rabbinic matters (brachot and the like) it is reasonable to follow that historical understanding of, as these are very much matters of mesorah. … This would certainly be encompassed (at the least) by the rule of safek brachot lehakel given the number of rishonim and achronim who call oats one of the five grains.
“Furthermore, of course, one should never consider fermented oats not-chametz since that would be directly against Rashi and those many rishonim who agree with him, and the many achronim who note our mesorah to treat oats as one of the five grains – to be lenient about the issur of chametz on Pesach is simply a mistake.
“But when it comes to the eating of oat matzah, there are three grounds to be strict, and the historical practice is to be strict, and not to use oat matzah for the mitzvah at the Seder.
“First, and foremost, oats does not fit the botanical description of שבולת שועל found in the poskim. Whatever the power of a mesorah, …it flatly contradicts a codified halacha, as it does in this case, where the Shulchan Aruch codifies that שבולת שועל must cross-breed with barley. I realize that Rashi and other rishonim do explicitly call שבולת שועל avena or oats, but that description contradicts the botanical statements in the Gemara about שבולת שועל and when confronted with a tension between a rishon and a Talmudic text, it is the rishon’s view that is considered difficult. No one has yet harmonized the Mishna and the Gemara with the view that avena is שבולת שועל on a technical level.
“Second, there always was a very strong tradition not to use oat matzah at the Seder (as noted by Shevet Halevi 9:117 and Minchat Yitzchak 9:49). While there were many reasons for this tradition, this is also an ancient mesorah.
“Third, there is a unique and special bracha recited (al achilat matzah) which according to all the rishonim who disagree with the categorization of oats as שבולת שועל is simply a blessing in vain (bracha levatala) and thus a sin. Even those who defend the definition of שבולת שועל as oats (as Rav Efrati does very well in “What is Shibolet Shual,” Mesorah 13:66-71) only do so as a stricture (lechumra) and not as a leniency (lekula) – to argue that people should never stop considering oats as chametz. Using oats as the matzah for the Seder is beyond that, but represents the use of oats as one of the five grains lekula, which is factually highly problematic.”
So, what should the person who is intolerant of gluten do? Rabbi Broyde’s recommendation is:
“First, such a person might very well be exempt from the mitzvah.
“Second, there might well be a better solution. Shulchan Aruch 453:2 states that one can make matzah from a mixture of wheat and rice flour and so long as the mixture has the taste of wheat flour, one fulfils the mitzvah, because rice flour is so bland that it merely serves as filler. Both Mishnah Berurah and Aruch Hashulchan permit this in a time of need even if the amount of wheat flour is less than the minimum measure of a kezayit (as do the vast majority of rishonim). In consultation with food experts and after a number of sample bakings, it is clear that a mixture which is 90% rice and 10% wheat flour has the wheat taste and one can fulfill the mitzvah of matzah with such matzot…
“Even though these matzot perhaps entail being lenient on the custom of kitniyot, it would seem to me that this is a much better halachic solution to the issue of matzah at the seder for one who suffers from celiac than to rely on the use of oat matzah…”
“Of course, a person who is completely intolerant of any wheat should use oat matzah without the unique bracha, as certainly it is a plausible fulfillment of a mitzvah and without a bracha is better than nothing. But the mixture of wheat and rice is superior to that in that the Talmud endorses this solution explicitly, as do the vast majority of rishonim, the Shulchan Aruch itself, as well as most achronim.”
Rabbi Broyde’s article elicited more than fifty responses, not all of which agreed with him. An anonymous contributor observed that oats, like rice, have no gluten, so they can’t become chometz. (Though both of them should then be considered kitniyot.) Several responses recommend that a celiac person eat only a kezayit [olive-sized piece] of matzah. One writer who has a celiac daughter asserted that most oats sold in the supermarket are contaminated with wheat and barley, and in any event, oats have a protein that is similar to gluten. Anonymous also observed that “[d]isputing the identification of Shibboleth Shual is to my knowledge is endorsed only by Rabbi Abady, although R’ S Z Auerbach was once choshesh for it until R’ Elyashiv rebuked him about it.”
We should note that https://www.kof-k.org/articles/FFT.Pesach.5773.pdf, in an article cleverly titled “Gluten for Punishment No More,” has a very thorough discussion of the issue of whether oats are Shibolet Shual which strongly favors the traditional halacha. It quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein as saying, “even if you were to bring another thousand proofs (that
shiboles shual is two-rowed barley), you will not be able to change the tradition of Klal Yisrael!” Moreover, even Dr. Felix, responding to Rav Efrati, writes “… that he is only writing from a botanical standpoint and he leaves Halachic decisions to others. He closes his article with the observation that “it is well understood that even a heavenly voice cannot countermand the decision of the halachic authorities.”
In conclusion, the argument boils down to which has precedence, following biology or following 1,000 years of practice? Like my friend Oren, I won’t take a position; let the sages decide.