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"The custom of refraining from eating Kitniyoth - legumes such as rice, lentils, beans etc. - during the Pesah holiday has always been a matter of debate" says Rav David Bar-Hayim, Head of Machon Shilo, a Talmudic research institute, and president of the Beth HaWaadh rabbinical court.
According to Rav Bar-Hayim, the custom grew up in some Jewish communities during the Exile, but no one is quite sure how it began or why. Some say it started in Medieval Europe as a response to sometimes finding wheat grains in sacks of rice. This is a problem, as rice cannot become Chametz (leavened) whereas wheat certainly can--and the consumption of Chametz is strictly forbidden during Pesah by the Torah. Others have suggested that it was to avoid confusion with the five grains that can become Chametz.
"This was a localized custom in parts of Germany, which later moved eastwards to Poland and Russia with the waves of Jewish emigration", states Rav Bar-Hayim. "The explanations offered for the custom are unconvincing. You don't find wheat in rice today. It was never accepted by Jews worldwide. Whatever the origin of the custom, Ashkenazi Jewish commentators have struggled to find good reasons for the ban. Some authorities, such as Rabbenu Yeruham, called it a foolish custom'".
Over time, more and more items were arbitrarily added to the list: beans and peas, and more recently soya beans and even peanuts. Few Ashkenazi Jews today would eat peanuts or use peanut oil on Pesah, but as recently as 40 years ago peanuts were permitted by all Rabbinical authorities. Often there were economic interests at work behind the scenes, pushing for ever more stringent definitions of Kitniyoth, in order to create a market for a particular product. Products that were previously kosher were banned. Very expensive oils such as walnut oil replaced other oils that were previously acceptable and the focus of the holiday shifted from avoiding Chametz to avoiding Kitniyoth.
"We learn from the Mishnah and the Talmud that customs are connected to a particular place. When one moves permanently to another locality, one is to adopt the local custom," explains Rav Bar-Hayim. "The custom of abstaining from eating Kitniyoth during Pesah has never been the prevailing practice among all Jews in Erets Yisrael, and is therefore not binding upon Jews living in Israel. A person may choose to continue adhering to his custom, but no one has the right to force his custom on others."
According to the ruling, the variety of customs forbidding different foods creates divisiveness that the Torah prohibits. "The Torah specifically instructs us not to act in a divisive fashion; the Jews in a particular place should follow the same customs" says Rav Bar-Hayim. "This is the opinion of Rambam and other authorities who state that we should not have more than one beth din (religious court) or groups practicing different customs in the same city. This leads to a lack of societal cohesion. Today we see that this is all too true. We hope that this ruling will serve as the beginning of a process that will unite the Jewish People."
Kitniyoth are a Small Part of a Larger Issue
According to Rav Bar-Hayim, this discussion is part of a larger issue on whether the customs and practices of the Exile (Diaspora) should be maintained when the Jewish People return to their Land where other practices have been followed or even mandated by the Torah.
"Everyone talks about Kitniyoth, but no one talks about the Korban Pesah, the Pascal Sacrifice," continues Rav Bar-Hayim. "Today, as always, we are commanded to bring a Korban Pesah, but most people are under the mistaken impression that we cannot since we are ritually impure from contact with the dead."
Rav Bar-Hayim cites the Mishnah and the Rambam that state that if a majority of the people is ritually unclean, the Passover sacrifice is not postponed and is brought in a state of impurity.
"While we recognize that sacrifices cannot be reinstituted in a time frame of days or weeks - for political, not Halachic, reasons - we hope that this psak halacha will cause a paradigm shift from small talk' about Kitniyoth to confronting the big issues such as the Pesah sacrifice. I am aware that some people, even some religious Jews, are uncomfortable with the subject of animal sacrifice; this is something that we need to discuss and internalize. The Pesah sacrifice was one of the annual highlights of Jewish life in the Land of Israel during the First and Second Commonwealths. The Jewish People have come home; we need to start acting like it".
About Machon Shilo
Machon Shilo seeks to promote the study of the customs and practices of our forefathers and Rabbis, who lived in Erets Yisrael. Machon Shilo believes that while the Jewish People have physically returned to their ancestral homeland, Erets Yisrael, they have not yet returned to the Torah of Erets Yisrael, only to the learning of Torah in Erets Yisrael. For more information, visit www.machonshilo.org.
The full psak (in Hebrew) can be found at [web.archive.org] .