Monday, April 2, 2012


A few years ago, I posted an article on-line about the gezeirah/minhag called "kitniyos", under which Ashkenazi Jews of the past 700-800 years have refrained from eating legumes, rice and assorted other non-chametz produce during the week of Pesach.

The practice originated out of concern for grain being mixed in with other products during harvesting or processing, as well as concern that permitting kitniyos products might lead to accidental permission of the chametz products they resemble.

My position in that post was that the kitniyos decree is founded upon solid logic (even if some of its modern extensions are not), and that it doesn't create great hardship (how many of us need to eat rice or beans every week?). [Where it does create great hardship, such as for those with extreme food allergies or for babies who need soy formula, kitniyos are approved.] So I argued against the popular resentment of this practice.

I didn't think my position was that radical, but others disagreed.

I re-visit this subject now in order to add a point: It seems to me that some of the resentment for kitniyos stems not from any hunger for rice, but from a basic lack of trust for rabbis, leading to automatic rejection of their statements and rulings.

Example: The other day I heard a rabbi cite a classic midrash regarding Sarah's biblical prepartion of "cakes" for guests; the midrash, basing itself on textual evidence, says that this event occurred on Pesach. Despite the textual evidence, I noticed someone nearby groan reflexively. Why? I think it was not because the midrash was particularly questionable, but because it was a rabbinic teaching.

There are several factors here.

The populism which dominates government,
the democratization of information,
the rise of critical thinking,
the revelation of scandal among religious and political leaders,
the proliferation of independent philosophical paths,

lead to rejection of leadership, religious and otherwise, Jewish and general. I don't view any of these factors as automatically negative, but the result is a thoughtless, knee-jerk rejection of leaders.

Add in external pressure from those who reject religion altogether and highlight its foibles at every opportunity, and the result is that religious dicta are challenged and rejected not on their merits, but because of their source.

I find this sad. There is much to debate in the arena of kitniyos, and much to be learned from the general challenging of rabbinic teaching. Rabbis who are expected to explain and defend their teachings will produce stronger Torah. But when the rejection comes from reflex rather than reflection, well – that which is poorly conceived is poorly received.


  1. I think there's much more to it than rejection of authority. First of all, in today's society, almost every Jew of European descent is personally acquainted with Jews of Sefardic descent who eat at least some kitniyot on Pesach. Second, for many people, the categorization of avoiding kitniyos as a "minhag" makes it ripe for questioning; a "minhag", when translated as "custom", seems less binding, or more malleable, compared to "halacha". Many people don't understand the unusually binding and enduring nature of the minhag of avoiding kitniyot.

    As for the midrash and the listener's skeptical response: it is not that it is unbelievable that the event in question took place on Pesach; the part that is hard to believe is how the author of the midrash could possibly know that fact.

    Many people feel comfortable with the idea that the mesora has accurately preserved the history and teachings of the Jewish people. Many other people do not. While I have been criticized for comparing the process of transmitting the mesora to the children's game of telephone (while realizing that it is an imperfect metaphor), I don't think I'm the only one who is skeptical about the idea of a perfectly preserved mesora.

  2. I think for a lot of people, myself included, the problem is not with kitniyos, it is with the rapid expansion of the category of kitniyos and the prohibition of things as kitnityos or qausi-kitnoyis that were allowed a generation or two ago. The best example is peanuts, which Reb Moshe said Ashkenazim could eat as long as they didn't have a family custom not to. 15 years ago one could find KLP peanut oil. Also look at the latest uproar about quinoa.

  3. Tesyaa-
    Thanks for your comments.
    Re: Kitniyos - I agree that these are exacerbating factors.
    Re: Midrash - I would agree, except that the listener didn't even pause to consider the textual evidence; it's a knee-jerk reaction.

    Anonymous 8:23 AM-

  4. also, something to consider logical fallacies which are very common in much of rabbinic thought and talmud eg. slippery slope is a logical fallacy. if rabbis would be challenged to their views the same way lawyers challenge each other in front of judges, then alot of "minhagim" and "halahot" would fall apart due to poor logic. eg kitniot. in other words, to render a halahic psak 2 sides must be fairly represented. otherwise, it becomes segmented hefkerville, which jewish world has become.

  5. R. Torczyner,

    Is there a link to the article you wrote?

    IMHO, The connection between the rejection of the prohibition against kitniyyot and opposition to rabbinic authority may exist in some cases, but often it does not. In the case of the man you discuss, I surmise that his problem was not with rabbinic authority per se but with the fact that the verse does not openly suggest that this was done on Pesah, so how could the rabbis know (as one comment already said in slightly different words)? He might not be convinced by textual evidence that he does not perceive. I think many rabbis are not trained with how to deal with peshat vs. derash questions and confuse the two categories; not all are trained in how to tell the difference between original meaning and the obligation to interpret the Torah creatively based on the methods of Torah she-be-al peh. Nor do rabbis put into practice the traditional concept that many aggadot (as this medrash was) are not to be taken literally but as a statement pointing to a larger moral (in this case, a moral we are supposed to learn from Sarah re: Pesach). I think if more rabbis studies the perushim on En Ya'akov and the methods they use to interpret Midrash, Midrashim would be less open to contempt.
    Second, kitniyyot might be hard in "in-between" cases - people such as myself who have sensitive stomachs (for which matzah is bad) and do not like universally permitted alternative starches like potatoes. But more to the point, people do not mind sacrificing for something that seems to have a basis in mesorah. But kitniyyot is a perfect example of a custom that is controversial - in fact most ASHKENAZI rishonim reject the custom as needless or (some claim) even foolish, and most rabbis I have discussed the issue with have trouble giving a reason for the restriction that sounds convincing. In fact, I would argue that the minhag not to eat kitniyyot is a prime example of a minhag that gained its status DESPITE rabbinic opposition. So how is it anti-rabbinic to be "pro-kitniyyot" when so many rabbis opposed the restriction because the minhag seemed(s?) to CONTRADICT rabbinic traditions as recorded in the Gemara? In fact, some self-championed defenders of rabbinic tradition (e.g. R. David bar-Hayim in Israel) use these sort of arguments.
    In sum, I agree that lack of respect for rabbis or rabbinic tradition could be connected to people's lack of respect for the prohibition against kitniyyot, but to use kitniyyot as the main evidence for this more general rejection does not seem to fit the current reality (based on personal conversations, I know of plenty of rabbis who are very critical of the prohibition or who continue to prohibit not because they are convinced but because they feel they have to do so). There is no excuse for the lack of respect exhibited to tradition, and rabbis as a group are not to blame. But rabbis do need to take responsibility and explain their positions in a manner convincing not just to what is, as you pointed out, an increasingly engaged public, but in a manner that is convincing to the rabbis themselves. They also need to have the flexibility and intellectual honesty to at least allow those who honestly feel that those practices contradict tradition to do otherwise. If they do not, then kitniyyot, to the most extreme critics, may seem like just another unnecessary "humra" in an Ashkenazi world that is increasingly becoming more and more mahmir.

  6. Anonymous 11:46 AM-
    The idea that slippery slope is a logical fallacy is inapplicable here. The fallacy is when slippery slope is invoked to warn that A could lead to B which could lead to C which could lead to D, where the cumulative doubts at each stage come to outweigh the possibility of arriving at D. (Rather like the concept of sfek sfeikah in halachah.) In kitniyos, though, as in most gezeiros, it's a concern for A leading to B, without any further step.

    1. No link, sorry. It was an article written in my anonymous youth.

    2. His problem was not with the underpinning; it was a knee-jerk reaction, before any source could be presented. (Indeed, the presenter did not go on to provide the basis; it was a side point in a longer presentation.)

    3. I'm rather surprised to hear this contention about "most Ashkenazi rishonim". I know the ones who prohibit; who are these "most" who disagree?

    4. No one ever challenged the fact that kitniyos is against the gemara's explicit permission of this produce. The argument to prohibit kitniyos is that the decree became necessary, not that it always existed.

  7. Bit kitniot as in most gezeirot A does not directly lead into B. There are always intermediate steps. Kitniot unless directly in contact with hametz is not hametz. Step A - grow kitniot in yard (no hametz nearby). Step B - collect them. Step C - sell them. Step D often sell them together with or near hametz, so therefore let's ban them. How is this not slippery slope? Anything viewed so broadly will obviously not be subject to slippery slope...

  8. Considering that you have to check the lentils multiple times, who needs them?

  9. Anonymous -
    I believe your steps don't reflect the decree or the fallacy. The steps are:
    A) If you grow them, you will grow them near chametz;
    B) If you grow them near chametz, chametz will get mixed in;
    C) If chametz is mixed in, people will eat it.

    And the odds against A leading to B, or B leading to C, are not sufficient to overwhelm the odds of A leading to B, and B leading to C.

  10. 1. Disrespect for rabbinic authority is NOT a new phenomenon. It's NOT because of the sudden democratization of knowledge or rabbinic scandals or anything of the sort.
    You can find people groaning and rolling their eyes at rabbinic assertions from the times of chazal (what did R. Akiva used to think of rabbis before he flipped out?), through medieval responsa (nobody listened to the Rambam for years when he insisted the women tovel in a kosher mikvah in Fostat; and there are countless responsa and other accounts of the disrespect accorded to communal and other rabbis) to the low opinion of the rabbinic elite following Shabetai Tzvi (which gave rise to populist movements such as Chassidut) through to contemporary times. Nothing new under the sun there.

    2. As for the groaner in the shiur, we'd have to ask him or her. But perhaps the person was reacting not to the midrash, but an implication that Abraham literally observed Passover, and event that would happen 400 years in his future. The Rambam in his introduction to perek Chelek speaks of how presenting Chazal as literal brings disrespect to Chazal. I'd suggest it brings disrespect to later interpreters of Chazal. The midrash is didactic and homiletic, to connect the teachings of Abraham with the message of Passover. That's different than asserting that Abraham literally observed the halachot of Passover.

    3. As for quinoa, frankly it's hard not to be cynical.

  11. A) If you grow them, you will grow them near chametz; - not always. this is obvious. there are specialized factories or farms or markets.
    B) If you grow them near chametz, chametz will get mixed in; - not always.
    C) If chametz is mixed in, people will eat it. - likely, not always.

    this is exactly the point.

  12. its not even more likely than not.

  13. Melech-
    1. It's certainly not new, but the widespread character of it within a generally observant population does appear to be new.

    2. I think not. I believe you were there; no comment was made about whether they observed all of Pesach, or not.

    3. Who mentioned quinoa?

  14. Anonymous-
    1. I was speaking to the original logic, but even taking your view, the reality is that grain growers tend not to specialize. CRC and Star-K learned this when they investigated quinoa farms and had a very hard time finding one that only grew quinoa. Further, they found that storage media are shared among the various products.

    Do the research, and let me know if your findings differ.

    2. Your threshold of doubt ("likely, not always") doesn't reflect the standard for chametz, in which bitul lechatchilah is not accepted, even before Pesach.

  15. of course they found what they benefit from! i will find you the other way. using kosher agencies is not proof. there is a HUGE conflict of interest with no oversight. we all know its a business. thats why rabbis are getting resented. i have been around and i have personally seen both ways. in some countries one way and in some others. there are some farmers that specialize and some dont. halaha should be based on specifics, not generalizations.

    you are right about the standard. i didnt dispute that.

  16. Anonymous-
    1. Why do you say there is no oversight? Do the research and prove they are wrong. Until then, all I have is your unsubstantiated and anonymous allegation, against the claims of people who have done their homework and published their results, putting their names and reputations on the line.

    2. Since when is halachah not about generalizations? See Pesachim 37a on סריקי בייתוס.

  17. I really hope you are kidding with "Do the research and prove they are wrong." I am from tri-state area you should hear the answers I sometimes get when I call them for kashrut questions e.g. what kind of a jew are you. I am serious. Someone asked me that once to tell me whether something is kosher or not. Come on...a little intellectual honesty...Bunch of my friends work at a major kosher agency and they laugh when people tell them of how good the certification is. This is from the inside. I am not saying each and every item is not kosher. I just dont know. But to blindly trust someone with no oversight is ludicrous. As originally stated, until halahic decisions are made in an adversarial matter where the status quo is defended by an articulate and knowledgable person/toen/attorney, all these halahic/minhag games and disdain for rabbis will exist and perpetuate further. This is religion. Each and every halahic decision must be proven beyond reasonable doubt including tracing concepts as much as possible eg fish+meat=should be mutar today. If Moshe didnt do it, then we dont need to do it. This applies to everything.

  18. Anonymous-
    Sorry, but that just doesn't cut it. If a kashrus organization documents their research and posts it publicly and the best you can do is say "They don't know what they are talking about," you have no credibility.

    If you believe that farmers don't grow grain near rice, and don't use the same storage media for both, then do the research and prove it. Until then, you are just evidence that my point in the original post is correct - people have knee-jerk responses which have nothing to do with the evidence.

  19. R. Torczyner,

    As to point your #2, "His problem was not with the underpinning; it was a knee-jerk reaction, before any source could be presented." Again, I am not justifying his behavior, but maybe if the rabbi would have stopped to address the misconceptions that help lead to such knee-jerk reactions, that might be helpful for the future.

    Re: your point # 3 ("I'm rather surprised to hear this contention about "most Ashkenazi rishonim". I know the ones who prohibit; who are these "most" who disagree?"), I provide the following link (yes, the source pushes a specific line on the origin of kitniyyot that is critical of the custom, but I am not citing that; I am citing his division between Provencals, French, and Germans, and his conclusion that French and German rishonim opposed kitniyyot on the whole):
    As to you point #4 ("No one ever challenged the fact that kitniyos is against the gemara's explicit permission of this produce. The argument to prohibit kitniyos is that the decree became necessary, not that it always existed."), I would argue that 1) if it was in fact a gezerah, how come so many rishonim so easily call it an improper or unnecessary custom (not gezerah)and by what authority would they have had to undermine such a gezerah on their own; 2)if it is simply a minhag based on an exigency (which it seems to be), what was once perceived as necessary may no longer be necessary; 3) we can easily check the rice for hametz and solve the problem, if there even still is one, that way; 4) doesn't the Vilna Gaon try to connect it to the Gemara in Pesahim, thereby making it al pi din for those who follow him; he clearly had an issue with prohibiting something the Gemara explicitly permits, which leads to my next question: 5)what changed from the time of the Gemara until the gezerah was instituted that would make it necessary? I think the justification for the minhag/gezerah seems a bit forced for people when one can easily solve the hametz issue, if one comes up, by checking the relevant rice, and one could easily prevent others from confusing prohibited forms of grain on Pesah with produce that it permitted via education (especially when no rabbi in the Gemara seemed to be so concerned about legumes). Seriously religious people do not get annoyed at stringency per-se, only at stringency that doesn't seem to pass muster.
    This brings me to my last point: your main contention was that people's cynicism re: kitniyot was evidence that people, especially today, lack respect for rabbis. I still argue that while this may be true in some cases, there is plenty of cynicism going around among the rabbinate based on alternative mesorahs that seem to have a solid basis.

  20. "They don't know what they are talking about," you have no credibility.
    ++ nowhere did i say that. i said that what is published is one sided. its one person stating something. it may be true it may be not. i dont know. that's why juries are 12 people b/c 2 people can look at something and come with different conclusions. i PERSONALLY have seen both ways. i have seen agencies knowing what is going on or being ignorant/lacking common sense. just b/c a rabbi/talmud states something, does not mean he is right/to be believed as nobody defended the other side. i know what i advocate will never be put into practice b/c many rabbis dont want to be challenged (see issue tradition magazine between january-may 2011) for many reasons. unless rabbinic decisions are subject to strict scrutiny, such as A NECESSARILY, not may, leads B, what you said above about people mocking rabbis will further perpetuate.

    If you believe that farmers don't grow grain near rice, and don't use the same storage media for both, then do the research and prove it.
    +++i have PERSONALLY seen both. it depends on the market. it depends on the country. i have PERSONALLY observed unbleached rice grown on its own and sold on its own without any hametz. same thing with raw sunflower seeds. for someone to say that those seeds or type of rice is kitniot is just not being intellectually honest.

    my point here is not to debate what i saw and what you didnt. my point as i said earlier, each and every situation is different. when a rabbi gives a general decision i have bad feeling when that happens.

  21. My anecdotal observations on the respect gap:
    1.Perception that if you are not living in the real world (Roshei Yeshiva,full time pulpit rabbis) you really can't understand real world issues

    2. Lack of central authority (and even where there is some see 1) yields diverse results reinforcing "halachic will/way" perception

    3.perception that rabbis pretend their hands are tied by halacha when there is so much subjectivity (see 1,2)

    4.we get the leaders we deserve

    Joel Rich

  22. Yes yes yes to number 3. If there is no strict scrutiny (A must lead to B), then we have the segmentation that we currently have. There is no body defending the status quo. Part of the problem also is this myth that we are somehow "dumber and less informed" than rabbis who lived before. If rambam would be around today and given access to library of congress, russia, israel, jts and yu, then we would be practicing a different religion. likely more resembling the original authentic judaism.

    The original anonymous.

  23. I often see kitniyos translated as legumes, but it seems to me that only some items generally thought of as kitniyos really are legumes. We need a more precise translation to cover all such items.

    See, for example:

  24. What English word covers items as diverse as corn, mustard seeds, canola and its oil, and fresh green beans? If you have one, send it in.

  25. Joseph-
    1. I definitely agree, and that's something I do generally do, but all of us have different styles.
    2. Thanks; interesting, but, as you note, propagandish.
    3. I am actually more comfortable with the minhag formulation. Where is that GRA?

    Anonymous 5:20 AM-
    Which farms have you seen?

    I must caution you: If the next response doesn't list the name and contact information for a farm you have seen, I'll need to delete it. I avoid censoring, but I can't let slander be published here.


  26. I listened last year to a lecture on yutorah by Moreinu Harav Moshe Dovid Tendler, slit"a on quinoa. He argued, assuming I understood correctly, that although quinoa is not part of the centuries-old minhag, we should still be noheig issur because people will get confused. Fine. But in illustrating the point, he was quite openly contempuous of his balhabatim and their level of understanding.

    As someone else pointed out, chafing under rabbinic authority long predates Western rejection of authority structures. And contempt for balahabatim among rabbonim has been a significant reason for it at least as far back as the time of the Tannaim. Respect has to go both ways. Leadership is a responsibility as well as priviledge, and the rabbinic response to ignorance has to be instruction rather than contempt.

  27. Mike S.
    Without discussing the style of the particular Rav you mention, I agree with you entirely. Indeed, see Tosafos on R' Akiva's disdain for talmidei chachamim - he credits it to this issue precisely.

  28. I have no idea what the contact info of these farms is. I saw them in 2 places: Caucasus region in former USSR and Lithuania. They were grown separately in different places on the farm. On the market, they were sold separately as well.

  29. Food for thought:

    Which comment here by any nameless commenter can we read with total assurance that:

    1. He tells the truth about himself?

    2. He tells the truth about what he has seen or heard?

    3. Any other nameless people he quotes or paraphrases were at all reliable?

    Caveat emptor applies as a warning here as much as it does to products.

  30. R. Torczyner,

    I believe it's the Gra ד"ה ויש אוסרין in Shulhan Arukh Hilchot Pesach 452:1.

  31. Joseph - 453:1, but he says explicitly that this is just intended to be a סמך for the minhag.

  32. Even so, he is not content to leave it as a simple folk custom.