Why Kitniyot Passover Fight Is Literally Full of Beans

Why Kitniyot Passover Fight Is Literally Full of Beans

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When is a legume not necessarily a legume? When it’s a min kitniyes, might be the Yiddish answer, which could be translated as, “When it’s a whatchamacallit.” And why is that? The week of Passover is a good time to ask.

As the more ritually meticulous among you are aware, legumes — which is to say, edible foodstuff that grows in pods and belongs to the family Leguminosae, such as beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas — have long been a source of controversy in the world of Jewish observance. There are Orthodox Jews who consider them kosher for Passover and Orthodox Jews who don’t, and while the fault line tends to run between legume-eating Sephardim and non-legume-eating Ashkenazim, it meanders through some exclusively Ashkenazi territory, too.

Indeed, the great Legume War of 1868, as Jewish historians know it, took place entirely in Eastern Europe. There was a severe famine that year, and to help ease the plight of poor Jews, some rabbis ruled that hitherto forbidden legumes, a relatively cheap source of food, could be eaten on Passover after all. Other rabbis, however, furiously opposed the ruling, attacking it as a heresy that imperiled the whole structure of Jewish tradition. Also getting into the act were the maskilim, the sometimes anti-religious Hebrew-writing intellectuals of the age, who mocked both groups of rabbis for their scholastic wrangling, so that the phrase kitniyot shel pesach, “legumes on Passover,” became a byword for a molehill made into a mountain by religious obscurantism. If so many Jews hadn’t been going hungry, it would indeed have been worth a good laugh.

Kitniyot (singular, kitnit) were not always classed with wheat and wheat products as hametz. There is no reference to their being thought of as such in ancient or talmudic times, and the first explicit prohibition on eating them on Passover was apparently issued in the late 12th century by the renowned halachist Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, then a center of Jewish learning in the Rhineland. The issue must have already been under debate, because, writing in Egypt at about the same time, Maimonides expressly permits the consumption of legumes. Here would seem to lie the beginnings of the Ashkenazi/Sephardic split, since Maimonides, whose authority was unchallenged by the Arabic-speaking Jews of North Africa and the Middle East, did not have quite the same overwhelming influence in Europe.

Yet why should anyone have wanted to prohibit legumes on Passover in the first place? Several theories have been suggested — among them, the tendency of legumes to go sour when cooked and left uneaten for too long, and the resemblance of white beans to boiled wheat grains, which could lead to the latter being mistaken for them. Yet none of this is very convincing. More likely is the explanation, fortified by recent scholarship, that the ban goes back to medieval European agricultural practices, according to which field crops were rotated regularly, with wheat or other grain being planted in a field one year, and legumes (which are soil-replenishing nitrogen fixers) the next. Since some wheat might sprout spontaneously in the second year, too, there was the possibility of its inadvertently getting into the legume harvest. Therefore, it is argued, European rabbis decided to put all legumes on the Passover blacklist. In North Africa and the Middle East, however, where such crop rotation was unknown, legumes had no rabbinic opposition.

This makes sense, especially because Eleazar of Worms wrote, in so many words, “We do not eat beans and lentils because there is wheat in them.” Part of Maimonides’s wording, on the other hand, is curious. “Legumes [kitniyot] such as rice, millet, beans, lentils, and the like,” he states, “are not to be classed as hametz.” Legumes such as rice and millet? Unless Maimonides believed that rice and millet grew in pods, one has to assume that he was using the word kitniyot not as a botanical classification but as a legal one — that is, as a term for the entire category of field crops, whether botanically leguminous or not.

This is indeed how he was read by later rabbis, Ashkenazi ones, too, who adopted his language and added to the category of kitniyot, classed by them (against the occasional objections of other rabbis) as forbidden, not only rice and millet, but also such things as potatoes, corn, peanuts, caraway and anise seeds, and canola oil. All have at times been treated, for the purposes of halachic discussion, as legumes.

This is why the Yiddish expression min kitniyes, literally “a kind of legume,” has the meaning of a whatchamacallit or a-who-knows-what-it-is. After all, if a potato can be a legume, anything can be just about anything, all the more so if it comes with a rabbinical stamp. You can also say in Yiddish, alerley miney kitniyes, “all kinds of legumes,” in the sense of “all kinds of odds-and-ends” or “everything but the kitchen sink.” As for what we eat on Passover, it would be easier if we were all Sephardim.

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