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בין תבין Know thy Beans


Kitniyos in the Modern World


Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech


This article appeared in the April 2002 issue of Kashrus magazine. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Of the many Minhagim that we are privileged to enjoy on Pesach, the Halachic discussion surrounding the concept of Kitniyos is especially fascinating.  In truth, the custom itself is somewhat enigmatic, and its application and permutations could fill volumes.  The purpose of this article is to give the reader a basic understanding of the concept of Kitniyos, its historical and Halachic basis, as well as some interesting practical applications.


The basic rule is that on Pesach one must eat Matzah, and one may not eat (or own) Chometz. By definition, both of these products hail from the same raw material – the five major grains: wheat, rye, oats, barley and spelt.  Chazal teach us that these – and only these – grains can become Chometz when they ferment. The fermentation of all other foods, whether we call them a “grain” or not, is considered a sirchon (rot) and not Chometz.  Since Matzah must be made from a material that has the ability to become Chometz, the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 453:1) establishes the rule that Matzah may only be made out of the five grains and “not out of rice and other types of Kitniyos, and these will also not become Chometz.”  The word “Kitniyos” is generally translated as “legumes” or “beans” but, alas, the use of a name is less than an exact science, as we can see from the language of the Mechaber, where he combines “rice and other types of Kitniyos” under one heading. In the context of Pesach, the definition of a legume has thus sprouted to encompass many more species and a good deal of controversy.


The real concern with Kitniyos on Pesach is not based upon their inability to make Matzah but rather on a custom discussed by some Rishonim regarding avoiding their use entirely on Pesach.  While it would seem ideal to eat foods that cannot conceivably become Chometz, these authorities were concerned that Kitniyos might in some way become confused with true Chometz.  First, cooked porridge and other cooked dishes made from grain and Kitniyos appear similar.  Second, Kitniyos are often grown in fields adjacent to those in which Chometz is grown, and these grains tend to mix together. And third, Kitniyos are often ground into a type of flour that can easily be confused with Chometz.  For these three reasons, these authorities suggested that by avoiding eating Kitniyos people would be better able to avoid Chometz.  The Vilna Gaon (Hagaos HaGra, ibid.)  indeed actually cites a novel source for this custom. The Gemorrah in Pesachim (40b) notes that Rava objected to the workers of the Raish Gelusa (the Exilarch) cooking a food called chasisi on Pesach, since it was wont to be confused with Chometz.  The Tosefos explain that, according to the Aruch, chasisi are lentils and thus, argues the Gra, establishes the basis for the concern of Kitniyos.


Based upon these considerations, the custom of the Jews in Europe (Ashkenazim) developed to avoid eating Kitniyos, and this custom was codified by the Ramah (ibid.). The Jews of Spain, Northern Europe, and the Middle East (Sefardim), however, follow the opinion of Rav Yosef Karo, and never accepted this custom. To this day, most Sefardim partake of rice, beans, maize, and other forms of Kitniyos without compunction. It is critical to note, however, that while Kitniyos on Pesach may be an exclusively Ashkenazik concern, actual Chometz added to Kitniyos is not.  For example, vitamins are often added to rice, some of which pose serious Chometz concerns.  Even “corn” (glucose) syrup may contain enzymes that come from organisms that are grown on Chometz ingredients.  Of even greater concern, glucose syrup from some parts of the world is actually made from wheat starch (see below for a full discussion of glucose), and some such Chometz glucose and malto-dextrins from such countries is actually being imported into the United States. Clearly, any Kitniyos eaten on Pesach is subject to standard Pesach concerns of Chometz.


It is very important to recognize, however, that even according to the Ashkenazim, Kitniyos itself is definitely not Chometz.  The Ramah himself notes this distinction in several ways.  One is allowed to own and derive benefit from Kitniyos, something that is prohibited with true Chometz.  The Mishna Berura (ibid., 7) also notes that one who is ill may eat Kitniyos even if his illness is not life threatening, and therefore most medicines that contain only Kitniyos may be used on Pesach.  One may also keep Kitniyos in his house on Pesach without concern that it may be inadvertently eaten, and one may use it for any purpose except eating. Furthermore, if Kitniyos becomes inadvertently mixed into a food it is Batul B’Rov (as opposed to real Chometz, which under certain conditions may never become Batul) and the food may be eaten.


As we have noted before, however, the criteria for determining what is – and what is not – Kitniyos is less clear than the actual custom. Rice and beans are certainly included. However, the Poskim discuss several types of seeds (e.g. “anise” and “kimmel”) that it seems were prone to being contaminated with kernels of wheat, and for this reason their use was prohibited.  Contemporary authorities question the exact translation of these items (again, the name is important), and for that reason many have the custom to avoid seeds such as caraway, cumin, or fennel that are similar to anise and kimmel.  Indeed, most authorities do not permit the use of coriander for Pesach, since it is common to find grains of wheat mixed into this spice.  Mustard, according to the Ramah (O.C. 164:1), should also not be eaten on Pesach. The reason for this custom is a bit more obscure, but the Taz (153:1) explains that mustard is similar to beans in that they both grow in pods.


The cornucopia of new foods from the New World brought new items – such as maize and potatoes – to the fore.  Both quickly became staple foodstuffs in the Old World, and although clearly not technically legumes, the question arose as to whether they should nevertheless be included in the category of Kitniyos.  As it turns out, maize is generally considered to be Kitniyos whereas potatoes are not.  Interestingly, the etymology of the names of these foods may give us some insight into this dichotomy.  While the common name for maize (from the Tahino word “mahis”) is “corn” –  and in the United States this usage is quite clear –the origin of the word “corn” is something quite different.  The word “corn” can be traced back to the ancient Indo-European  word “grn”, which literally meant a small nugget.  In German, this word became “korn” and in Latin it became “grain”, both of which include any edible grass seed.  In practice, these terms refer to whatever the predominant grain happens to be in a given country.  In the Americas, it referred to maize. In Scotland, it referred to oats, and in Germany it referred to wheat or rye.  Indeed, old English translations of Pharaoh’s insomniac premonitions refer to "seven sheaves of corn".  Columbus had not yet discovered America during the time of Pharaoh, so Pharaoh was clearly not dreaming of corn on the cob. The "corn" to which he referred was rather one of the five grains.  Yiddish speakers are similarly prone to this confusion, since they often use the term "Korn" to refer to grain.  It seems, however, that the popularity of corn – and its resulting assumption of this sobriquet – was sufficient for the minhag of Kitniyos to extend to this new “grain”.   Potatoes, on the other hand, were never regarded by people as a grain, and therefore generally considered to have escaped the Kitniyos categorization.  [It is interesting to note that the Chaye Adam was of the opinion that potatoes should indeed be considered Kitniyos. Much to our general relief, however, this opinion was definitely not accepted.]


The status of certain types of beans – and the distinctions made between them – is not quite as clear. The general custom is to consider soybeans to be Kitniyos, and we therefore do not use soybean oil for Pesach (see below concerning oil).  Peanuts, on the other hand, are a source of controversy that goes to the heart of the Kitniyos itself. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Igros Moshe, O.D. III:63) is of the opinion that peanuts are not Kitniyos.  He reasons that Kitniyos is not a Halacha (official law) but a minhag (custom).  While Minhagim often have the force of Halacha, Rav Moshe argues that the Minhag cannot be extended beyond what was actually included in the custom.  Since peanuts were not in common use in Europe when the minhag of Kitniyos was instituted, there is no Halachic basis to extend it to new items, even if they are arguably identical to other Kitniyos in form and use.  Indeed, there are communities that have a custom to eat peanuts (and Kosher L’Pesach peanut butter!) on Pesach.  While this may not be the generally accepted approach of most people, there are certainly ample grounds on which to rely in this regard.  Some contemporary authorities even carry this logic one step further.  A type of grain called “quinua” has recently become popular. It is peculiar to the Andes Mountains, and had certainly never been considered Kitniyos because it had never been used by Jews before!  Following the concept that new types of Kitniyos cannot be created, these authorities permit all manner of baked goods to be made out of this exotic cereal.  [Please consult your Halachic authority before using quinoa.]


Concerns of Kitniyos are not limited to the grain itself. Many such plants, such as soy, peanut, and corn, are processed into oil, and there is much discussion amongst the poskim as to whether the Minhag of Kitniyos extended to its oil. For this reason, many who do not eat peanuts on Pesach will use peanut oil, since there is an additional reason to be lenient. Some authorities also are of the opinion that rapeseed oil (also known as Canola oil) can similarly be permitted, since rapeseeds are far removed from conventional Kitniyos in that they are not eaten and were not generally available in previous generations.   On the other hand, others contend that since rapeseed is a member of the mustard family, it should be subject to the custom cited earlier concerning mustard. In addition, it has been determined that rapeseeds are commonly contaminated with wheat kernels, thus meeting one of the classic definitions of Kitniyos.


Some authorities carry concerns of Kitniyos oil to an even more stringent conclusion. The generally accepted custom in the United States (based upon a psak of the Tzelemer Rav) is to permit the use of cottonseed oil. In addition to the general leniencies relating to oil, cottonseeds are not even edible and thus arguably not subject to being considered Kitniyos in the first place.  However, the Minchas Yitzchok (III:138) and others marshal proofs that neither of these arguments is correct, and for this reason many people have the custom to avoid using cottonseed oil and content themselves with olive, walnut or palm oil.


Another common use of Kitniyos is in the manufacture of glucose from cornstarch, which we call corn syrup.  A starch molecule consists of a long chain of glucose molecules linked together, and glucose is obtained by cleaving individual glucose molecules from the starch using acids or enzymes.  Although we noted that some allow the use of oil from Kitniyos, most authorities agree that corn syrup has the same Halachic status as the Kitniyos cornstarch itself rather than that of the oil expressed from it.  Corn syrup, and its specialized high fructose version, has long replaced sugar as the sweetener of choice for use in soda, which would pose a significant problem of Kitniyos on Pesach. Fortunately,  this is the “Pesach generation”, and the major soft drink manufacturers make special productions of the world's favorite beverages for Pesach (the un‑Kitniyos drinkthe old fashioned way – they use liquid sugar (even though the label may state "Sugar and/or High Fructose Corn Syrup"). [Some soft drink aficionados seek out the Passover version of the “Real Thing”, since it follows the original formula by using sugar instead of corn syrup!]


One final point concerning the application of the rules of Kitniyos should be noted.  Corn syrup and its derivatives are often used as the starting point for making other food chemicals. Citric acid is used as a flavoring agent in candies, jams, and many other foods. Erythrobic acid is used to maintain the red color in pickled and cured meats, and xanthan gum is used as a thickener. Aspartame is used as an artificial sweetener, and enzymes are used to make fruit juice and cheese.  All of these products are routinely produced through the fermentation and corn glucose, and their Pesach status has been the subject of much Halachic discussion. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l indeed ruled that the Minhag of Kitniyos never extended to such distant relations of cornstarch, and thus permitted citric acid produced through the fermentation of corn glucose. Almost all Kashrus agencies rely on this approach to permit one or more of the above products, and it is the responsibility of the consumer to verify the standards of the certifying agency as regards these issues when purchasing products for Pesach.


As we have seen, issues relating to Kitniyos have burgeoned over the centuries. Foods unknown when the concept of Kitniyos was instituted have now become staples, and modern food science has found a myriad of ways to incorporate them into our foods in unforeseen ways.  The Halachic underpinnings of such Kitniyos issues are indeed fascinating, and serve as interesting grist for the Pesach mill.

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