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Qitniyoth – a Qaraite Custom?
Written by David S.
Thursday, 07 March 2013 00:00
Published 2009-04-07

Most people know that Ashkenazi Jews do not eat Qitniyoth – rice, millet, lentils, beans, corn and legumes – during Passover. Few people know why. This is hardly surprising: Ashkenazim don’t know either.

This customary stringency, or minhagh, is strange, to say the least; it stands in stark contradiction to authoritative Jewish law. The Mishna (P’sahim 2:5) clearly states that only the five species of grain – two varieties of wheat and three of barley (TB P’sahim 35a) – when mixed with water can rise and leaven, defined in the Tora as Hamess. The claim of one sage that rice should be added to the list is rejected out of hand by the Talmudh (P’sahim 114b).


It is commonly believed that this custom came about either because wheat grains are sometimes found in rice etc., or due to the fact that rice, millet and the like are sometimes ground into a flour and might be confused with ‘real flour’. The facts, however, tell a different story.
The earliest mention of this peculiar custom is quoted in the name of R. Asher or Lunelle, a town in Provence (southern France), who died in or around 1215 CE. He states that “it is the universal custom not to eat Qitniyoth during Pesah because they rise and leaven”. This claim is reiterated by R. Moshe Halawa, a Spanish rabbi of the late 14th century: “The sages of France claim that Qitniyoth are forbidden…they stated this rule of thumb: ‘Anything that swells when cooked…is a minor form of Hamess'”. This very same statement is recorded by the Spanish sage Ritba in the name of “French rabbis”.
But that’s not all. Jewish law forbids cooking flour or dough during Passover unless these are placed directly into vigorously boiling water, in which case the intense heat prevents fermentation. Two medieval French authorities declare that Qitniyoth may only be cooked on Pesah if they are placed directly into a boiling pot. These statements, which can only be understood in terms of the foregoing Halakha, constitute proof positive that the origin of this custom is the mistaken belief that qitniyoth can become hamess just like the five grains.
The common denominator of all the Halakhic codifiers who mention this minhagh is easy to spot: they all resided in France. It can be readily demonstrated, however, that 100 years earlier the students of Rashi, who were active in northern France in the early 1100’s, knew nothing of this custom; they write that all manner of qitniyoth may be cooked during Pesah. R. Z’rahya HaLewi, active in southern France towards the end of the 12th century, concurs. We thus conclude that this minhagh appeared in France towards the end of the 1100’s.

Early Rabbinic Responses

How did the rabbis of France respond to this anti-Halakhic custom? Some tried to defend it. Knowing the claim that qitniyoth could become Hamess to be bogus, they attempted to offer alternate explanations such as those mentioned above.
Others rejected the minhagh out of hand. R. Y’ruham of Provence, for example, states plainly: “This is a foolish practice”. R. Y’hiel and R. Judah, both of Paris, ignored the custom and ate qitniyoth on Pesah.
What of Germany (Ashkenaz)? The medieval authorities there were either silent or openly opposed to the custom, exemplified by this statement of R. Ya’aqov, son of the Rosh, in his famous work the Tur: “This is an extreme stringency and it is not the custom”.

Qaraite Connection?

Seeing that Jewish law and practice from time immemorial are emphatic that qitniyoth are permitted, perhaps we need to look further afield for the key to this riddle.
The Written Tora does not define the term ‘Hamess’. It is the Oral Tradition that has provided the Jewish people with a working definition. But what of those without a tradition? The Qaraites, lacking an oral tradition, struggled with this question. Many Qaraites in the past and up to the present day consider anything fermented to be a form of Hamess and do not consume vinegar and yoghurt on Pesah. As already noted, qitniyoth can be fermented and expand when cooked.
Does the custom of not consuming qitniyoth during Passover perhaps derive from a Qaraite interpretation of Hamess? This possibility cannot be discounted – a number of customs and halakhic interpretations made their way into normative Judaism during the late Geonic period, the heyday of Qaraitism, a fact attested to by no less an authority than Maimonides. This curious custom may simply be a further example of sectarian influences. Such an explanation does indeed fit the documented facts.

Last Updated on Friday, 19 July 2013 12:31