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Pessach is coming soon, so it is time to review the laws of chametz. Chametz means leavened food and is defined as everything made out of the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats) that has been in contact with water for more than 18 minutes. This includes basically all food that contains these grains (bread, noodles, pizza, cake, muesli, cookies, …). The exception are matzot produced for pessach that are specially watched so that from the moment the flour touches water until they are baked no more than 18 minutes pass.

During the week of pesach, chametz may not be eaten, owned or benefitted from in any way (e.g., by feeding it to pets or selling it). This is why we all go crazy and clean the house before pesach. Also why we refuse all invitations for meals, it’s not personal. Many people who are not too strict about kashrut during the year still take pessach very seriously.

Apart from chametz, there are other foods that Ashekenazi Jews don’t eat. This category is called kitniot and here is where it gets a bit complicated. The tradition of not eating kitniot comes from the middle ages, but already the Babylonian Talmud discusses if rice and millet are chametz (unverified source: Pesachim 35a, Pesachim 114b).

What are the reasons behind the tradition? Although the actual reason is lost somewhere in history, there seem to be two main explanations given:

  • Kitniot are grown together with and processed on the same equipement as actual chametz and may therefore contain traces of chametz. For example, beans and rye may grow on the same field or one may use the same mill to make flour from wheat or from rice.
  • Kitniot may be confused with chametz: Some raw kitniot are similar in appearance to raw chametz. Also, they are processed in the same way and the final products ressemble chametz products, e.g., bread or noodles made out of rice flour. Some kitniot dishes look similar to actual chametz dishes. How this connects with todays (allowed) “kasher-le-pesach pizza” or “kasher-le-pesach noodles” I don’t know.

The difficult question is now, what exactly belongs to the category of kitniot? Rice, millet, maize (corn), beans and lentils are among the most commonly included, but there are many others under discussion and the list changes every year (OU list for 2013). If I have the time, I will discuss some of those that seem most relevant to me in this blog.

No matter what exactly you consider kitniot, the most important point to note is, that kitniot are not chametz. You may not eat them, but even for Ashkenazim there is no reason to burn them or sell them. The only restriction is for actual eating. You can keep them in your house and feed them to your pets. And if you find a single bean in your food, probably nothing bad has happened, because kitniot get nullified just as any other food during the year (but chametz doesn’t!!).

Some articles for additional reading:
MyJewishLearning: Kitniyot: Not Quite Hametz
Conservative Responsa: Eating Kitniyot (Legumes) on Pesach
OU: Curious about Kitniyot?
Chabad: Know Thy Beans – Kitniyos in the Modern World
Star-k: Kitniyos By Any Other Name
CJVoices: The Kitniyot Dilemma
Rabbi Zvi Leshem: Kitniot: A balanced halachic approach (longer pdf)

Edit Mar 18 2014, Apr 14 2016: Updated link to OU: Curious about Kitniyot?