This week’s Torah reading opens the book of Vayikra, which is mostly about sanctity and, specifically, the sanctity of the MISHKAN or portable temple. The first issue discussed is the bringing of animal offerings in this newly inaugurated Mishkan. Moshe is told to inform the people: Whenever any of you bring a KORBAN (offering) from cattle to the Eternal (Vayikra 1:2). Rashi immediately informs us that this KORBAN is a NEDAVA (free will offering). I find it fascinating that the first offering described for the brand new sanctuary is VOLUNTARY!
We often think of religious observances as top/down affairs. God commands; we jump. That is often the case, but definitely not always. So, we mere mortals have the power to initiate spiritual performances. Our Sages gave their thumbs up sign to these activities. Rebbe Yochanan (Pesachim 50b) while explaining that customs (especially stringencies) of our ancestors’ should be preserved quotes Shlomo HaMelech: Heed, my child, the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the instruction of your mother (Mishlei 1:8).
We are granted the power to develop customs, and over time these traditions seem to gain the force of the Halachic system. The Rashba (1235-1310, a student of the Ramban) wrote that a MINHAG (custom) which exists with elders should not be undone, since it seems that the source must go back to Moshe Rabbeinu. In other words, long standing customs gain the weight of our entire Torah system. Later, the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Schreiber, 1762-1839) became the most stringent protector of MINHAG in his war with the Jewish Enlightenment, and wrote: MINHAGIM are Torah based from the concept of NEDARIM (oaths, Responsa 1:9). We’ll see that many believe that he went a step too far.
So, it’s time to delve into a specific custom, and, with Pesach fast approaching, let’s examine KITNIYOT. Now, KITNIYOT are certain grains and legumes which seem to have certain characteristics in common with the five grains (wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye) which can become either MATZAH or CHAMETZ on CHAG HaMATZOT. The difference between MATZAH and CHAMETZ is time, if you can arrest fermentation within 18 minutes of mixing the flour with water through baking, then it’s MATZAH, but if you miss the deadline it’s CHAMETZ.
Already in the Talmud, the items which would become KITNIYOT are sort of permitted, when it is stated: Rav Huna said that we don’t follow the position of Rebbe Yochanan ben Nuri who said that rice is a kind of grain which can become CHAMETZ or MATZAH (Pesachim 114b). But the door was thereby opened to a quasi-CHAMETZ category.
The Ashkenazic custom as we know it was first espoused in writing by the S’MAK (Sefer Mitzvot Ketan, Rav Yitzchak ben Yosef of Corbeil, d. 1280). He was a prominent rabbi in France during the period of the Tosafosts, and he wrote that there is custom to not consume a variety of legumes on Pesach. He specifically mentions rice, beans, lentils, chickpeas, sesame, and mustard. Oh, if only the story ended there!
Even though there are a number of Ashkenazic authorities who gave a pass to the KITNIYOT custom over the centuries (including Rabeinu Yerucham who called it a MINHAG SHTUT, a foolish custom), when Rav Moshe Isserlis codified Ashkenazic rulings in his gloss to the SHULCHAN ARUCH (1572) , he wrote: And some forbid KITNIYOT, and the custom in Ashkenaz is to be strict about this, and one should not change it (Orach Chaim 453:1).
It’s hard to argue with Rav Moshe Isserlis, because he was the great authority for Ashkenazim, and we should be zealous about our traditions. Here’s the problem: No one knows exactly why we keep this custom (up to 11 explanations have been given). So, we keep it because that’s what we do. However, there are authorities who believe that the prohibition is on any plant which can be compared to the specific original grains. Over the years, many new vegetables were discovered or developed that aren’t in our original list, like corn, peanuts, soybeans, canola, quinoa, etc. Are they KITNIYOT? Was the original list of the S’MAK comprehensive or examples. Anyway, the S’MAK lists six items; the OU lists 25.
Reb Moshe Feinstein Z”L wrote: Since this was never enacted in a gathering of scholars there is no prohibition except for the items that were identified with the custom, and not other species which were not prohibited because they didn’t know of them (Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 3:63). I have to be honest, that’s good enough for me. Good-bye rice; hello peanuts.
Rav Kook had a similar disagreement with the BADATZ of Yerushalayim over a century ago. Rav Kook explained that the prohibition of by-products of KITNIYOT (like oils, as in corn oil) were prohibited because they were afraid that they might have come into contact with the five grains, but if we can assure that this didn’t happen (like if Sephardim have checked and approved the product for Pesach) then products produced from KITNIYOT should be fine. And, BARUCH HASHEM, Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor the Rav of Kovno, agreed. My family came from Kovno.
So, bottom line: We Ashkenazim should be proud of our TRADITIONS! I wouldn’t consider abandoning the MINHAGIM of my forebears, but within reason. Prohibiting every possible permutation of KITNIYOT and their by-products is a bridge way too far for me. Remember, Chagim are for SIMCHA! I hope everyone keeps cool during Pesach preparations, and, with advice from trusted Halachik authorities, feels religiously comfortable with all our Pesach plans. Stay sane out there.