THIS SPUD'S FOR YOU – THE LAWS OF KITNIYOT (AKA THANK GOD FOR POTATOES)
The Tur begins his discussion of matzah (O.C. 453) by listing the five grains that may be used in the making of matzah: wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt. He also specifically singles out rice and millet as two grain-like products that may not be used, noting that they do not become chametz, and thus they cannot serve as matzah (there are many theological implications of the fact that matzah has to be able to be chametz, but space does not permit for such a discussion here. He then concludes that there are those who refrain from eating rice and other legumes, since there is often wheat mixed in with them. However, the Tur notes that this is an extra stringency and the custom is not to worry about it.
However, the Semak, who preceded the Tur by a generation, was of a different view. He claimed that kitniyot, such as beans and lentils, could not be eaten on Pesach. The Beit Yoseif explains that since grains were served as cooked meals and legumes were served in a similar manner, the Semak was worried that people would confuse the two and assume that since legumes are not chametz, neither are the similar-looking grains. Alternatively, the fact that people made bread out of some kitniyot (such as rice), led to a greater fear that people would assume that one may have bread on Pesach and come to make real bread, thus violating an extremely major law of Pesach.
While Rabbeinu Yechiel opposed this view of the Semak, Rav Shmuel of Evreux agreed with it. Even further, the Beit Yoseif claims that it is improper for people to be lenient in this matter once there are those who have forbidden the eating of kitniyot on Pesach. For this rule he relies on the gemara in Pesachim 50b which discusses creating such rifts in practice and states that once should not allow something that people have accepted upon themselves to be strict about. The Beit Yoseif goes on to note that mustard seed is also included in this prohibition, since it is considered to be something that is stockpiled ("midgan" – which is derived from the word "dagan," meaning grain; see Nedarim 55a; the Bach actually permits mustard if it was mixed into a cooked dish). However, the Beit Yoseif concludes that this entire law only applies to the Ashkenazic Jewish community, and Sephardic Jews do not have to worry about anything other than the basic five grains, which can actually become chametz.
Answering the call of the Beit Yoseif, the Ramo (in the Darchei Moshe), affirms the fact that Ashkenazic Jews are strict about not eating kitniyot, but he explains a few more of the parameters of the law. He first cites the Terumat HaDeshen (1:113), who notes that whereas by the five grains a person could not keep them in his house on Pesach if water fell on them, we are not so strict by kitniyot, and a person does not have to get rid of them if such a thing happened. He further goes on to claim that one may light a candle using oil from kitniyot, and the only issue is whether or not one has to worry about it dripping onto the table where he eats. In this vein, he cites the Maharil who permits using such a candle and hanging it over the table, since even if it were to drip on the food, it would not create a chametz problem since kitniyot is nothing more than a custom. In his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, the Ramo reaffirms the rule that if kitniyot happened to fall into some other dish, they do not render it chametz and it may still be eaten on Pesach. Additionally, he states that the laws of "bal yera'eh bal yimatze" do not apply to kitniyot, and thus one does not have to get rid of them before the holiday begins. The Magen Avraham goes one step further and rules that one may even derive benefit from them on Pesach, and the only problem is with eating them.
The fact that this prohibition was originally accepted as a stringency appears only with regard to situations when there are food shortages. The Sdei Chemed has an entire essay on whether or not kitniyot may be permitted when food is scarce, and the Tzemach Tzedek (one of the early Lubavitch masters) allows at least the oil from kitniyot to be used by the poor in their cooking on Pesach.
The exact product list of what falls under the rubric of this prohibition is one that is subject to debate and discussion, and is often a matter of regional agriculture. The Sha'arei Teshuva cites a few interesting examples of foods that were almost considered to be kitniyot, but (blessedly) escaped from being forbidden. His first example is coffee, which came with the fear that there were other grains mixed in among the beans. While he claims that coffee is allowed, he rules that one should roast the beans before Pesach to remove any such worries (and thus it would seem that today's processed coffees are not a problem at all). Tea presented a more intriguing issue. Apparently, dishonest merchants would use tea leaves, then dry them and sell them again. While this practice was despicable enough, it created the fear that they had originally been used with chametz and thus perhaps were problematic. The Sha'arei Teshuva this advises against using these leaves, although he does note that teas bought from major retailers do not have this problem.
One should not think that kitniyot is a custom unchallenged within the Ashkenazic world. Rav Yaakov Emden, in his work Mor U'Ketziah, writes that his father the Chacham Tzvi bemoaned this practice and kept it only because he did not feel that he alone could abolish a custom accepted by the community at large. In particular, the worry was that since the prohibition of kitniyot decreased the number of foods that people were allowed to eat on Pesach, there had to be an increase in the amount of matzah made. As this was before machine processing, the need for such mass production by hand led to the worry that the bakers would not be as careful and that the zeal in upholding kitniyot would lead to matzah that was bonafide chametz. However, Rav Emden's opposition to the prohibition against kitniyot met with severe opposition from many of the Rabbis of Eastern Europe (such as the Maharatz Chajes, the Chatam Sofer, and the Ma'amar Mordechai).
Rav Emden would certainly not be pleased with the development of the law to the point that it has reached today. The fact that the Terumat HaDeshen cited above permits lighting with oil of kitniyot reveals the fact that eating it was prohibited. More recently, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohein Kook, while he was Rabbi in Yafo, permitted sesame oil, an act that provoked violent reactions from some courts in Jerusalem.
The Ma'amar Mordechai was asked about making matzah out of corn. The driving force behind the question was that there was no problem of confusing it, since it would only be confused with matzah, which is perfectly permitted (and in fact advisable) to use on Pesach. He answered that the concern was the confusion of the flours, and that a person might come to bake with regular wheat flour on Pesach and create real chametz. The Chatam Sofer was asked a similar question, and permitted corn matzah in a time of a food shortage, so long as all of the other stringencies of preparing matzah were adhered to and the corn matzah was not used for the first night (since it does not qualify to fulfill the mitzva).
What about potatoes? More than most foods that are deemed to be kitniyot today, it would seem that potatoes should have been one of the first to go, since they are used to make a flour that could be confused with wheat flour (unlike, for example, peas). This being the case, how did they escape being included in this law? The most common answer is that the people who made this law did not know about potatoes, and thus they did not include them. While the sociological side of this answer may be accurate, the fact is that there was never a "grand council of kitniyot" that established one set list of foods that fell into this category. Rather, different Rabbis in different countries over different generations added stringencies on to the law. Thus, we return to our question of why potatoes are permitted on Pesach? Rav Moshe Feinstein (O.C. 3:63) puts forth the notion that potatoes were not originally included in kitniyot since they were not available. However, he further notes that even once they became popular in Eastern Europe the Rabbis refrained from prohibiting them. While Rav Feinstein does not know the exact reason why this was saw, he speculates that it was due to one of two reasons: either because potatoes were such a staple food and thus forbidding them would cause a catastrophe among the Jews in those countries, or because the Sages were wary about expanding the custom of kitniyot due to the fact that there are those Rishonim who call it a "foolish custom" and that the overall basis of it was very weak (for similar reasons he permits the eating of peanuts).
Daniel Shperber, in Minhagei Yisrael 2 (pp. 147-149) discusses kitniyot in the context of stringencies that were taken on but have little basis in actual law and perhaps have been blown a bit too much out of proportion. He marvels at the fact that there are legumes that would never, ever be mistaken for anything that remotely looks like chametz (e.g. peas), and yet they are forbidden because they might be confused with other kitniyot which can produce flour that can be confused with chametz. While we generally say that we do not make a decree on top of a decree ("ein gozrin gezeirah l'gezeirah"), that rule seems to have been suspended in this area of law. While it is true that we try to be as strict as possible with regard to Pesach, and particularly when it comes to chametz, foolish piety is tantamount to no piety at all.
On the other hand, it would seem that there is little to complain about today. Thank God, there are more products available for Pesach then ever before thought imaginable (and perhaps some of them should never have been created), and the chance that one will suffer from a lack of options is minimal. While a complete look at all that has been written about kitniyot is instructive in terms of how customs get started and how they grow and are adhered to, there is certainly little that is oppressive about this practice for most of Jewry in America and Israel today.
Or we can just all become Sephardim.
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