How big is the actual probability today that rice or beans contain traces of actual chametz? Is this really a concern? What do the various movements say about this concern, and about kitniyot in general?
Though there is significant confusion about the reason for the prohibition of eating kitniyot (literally ‘small things’ katan) for Ashkenazi Jews there are two basic approaches: 1) there are forbidden mixtures, 2) the kitniyot, when handled in certain ways, create food products that look like leaven.
Dealing with the latter problem first it seems that this issue should be ignored today. There are tons of potato starch based cakes, cookies, etc… available on Pesach. Yet, the fact that it isn’t, gives insight into the deeper issue: traditional Judaism is loath to abandon enactments from previous generations. Granted there are communities, especially in Israel, that have given up on the prohibition of kitniyot, the major authorities and their communities have not. The fact that the orthodox right controls the vast majority of kosher certification means that we won’t be eating cornbread on Pesach anytime soon.
Regarding the first reason, that the five grains that can become chametz are sometimes mixed in with the kitniyot – I can testify as an eyewitness to the fact that this is still the case. After Pesach I purchased a package of organic lentils and opened it up to check it over and prepare a lentil soup. I found over a dozen grains of wheat. I was very surprised since kitniyot were on my mind.
Think about the bulk containers at your local grocery. Or consider the means of production and packaging that are today so complex and can’t always be cleaned as carefully as is necessary to avoid the prohibition of eating leaven on Passover.
Sepharadim that eat kitniyot are supposed to check them over before Passover begins to eliminate any possible contamination. Ashkenazim who decide for whatever reason that they are going to eat kitniyot should also check all there lentils, rice, peas, etc… before the holiday begins.
Many Ashkenazi Jews are surprised to learn that neither the Torah itself nor early rabbinic literature forbid rice and legumes – known as “kitniyot” in Hebrew – or their derivatives during Passover. They are surprised, because as far as they know, these have always been taboo Passover foods. Moreover, in modern-day America (where corn and soy products are particularly ubiquitous), the prohibition on kitniyot makes Passover observance, already a challenging undertaking, especially cumbersome and unpleasant.
The prohibition on kitniyot dates (only) to the early 13th century, when Rabbis Asher of Lunel, Samuel of Falaise, and Peretz of Corbeil, declared the foods to be off-limits to their communities in France and Provence. Some say, as the questioner suggests, that they prohibited kitniyot because rice and beans were stored alongside other grains, and could therefore possibly contain traces of hametz (leavened grain products). Some say it was because rice and beans were commonly ground and used as bread flour, and were forbidden because of their hametz-like usage and associations. But their true reasons for enacting the ban are a mystery. Nevertheless, the custom spread to more countries and communities, and became entrenched in the consciousness of Ashkenazi Jews. As the practice spread, the list of prohibited foods expanded. The list of foods considered today to be kitniyot far exceeds the original list. It is far from a slam-dunk, for example, that maize, beans, and peanuts should be included. This is all the more true considering all the kitniyot derivatives (corn syrup, for example) that have been included in the list over the years.
As the custom grew in prominence, many authorities, from Rabbi Samuel of Falaise (one of the first to mention the prohibition) to Rabbeinu Yeruham, questioned it, referring to the prohibition on kitniyot as a "foolish custom." Modern day Conservative movement expert Rabbi David Golinkin has ruled, “Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim are permitted to eat legumes and rice on Pesah without fear of transgressing any prohibition.”
The only reason to continue observing the custom is to preserve the custom of our ancestors. This is not an unimportant reason. Indeed, it is why I continue to observe the practice, even when I know I am not biblically or rabbinically required to do so. However, if one does not find that to be a compelling reason to observe the custom, s/he should feel totally justified eating foods classically considered to be kitniyot. Moreover, one should eat eat kitniyot on Passover if one finds the prohibition so cumbersome as to render Passover completely joyless, unreasonable, and even unhealthy. Better to eat kitniyot on Passover than be driven to eating hametz due to all the trouble.
I have no way of calculating the probability of chametz appearing in rice and beans today but it is important to understand the Reform Jewish approach to kitniyot. This question is discussed in detail in the responsum, “Pesach Kashrut and Reform Judaism (5756.9),” published in Reform Responsa for the 21st Century, Mark Washofsky, editor (CCAR Press, 2010). The following discussion is summarized, almost verbatim, from that responsum.
The eating of kitniyot is not forbidden by Biblical or Talmudic law. The latter only forbids the use of rice and legumes for the baking of matzah (BT P’sachim 35a). The Ashkenazic custom of forbidding rice and legumes is first mentioned in the 13th century by two French authorities saying that “our teachers observe the custom” of not eating kitniyot but also noting that this custom is not universally accepted and that the “great sages” disregard it. The early Reformers of our movement abolished the restriction all together and today, Reform practice, following the standard of the Talmud, permits the eating of rice and legumes. The responsum notes in the same spirit as our questioner, “that the likelihood that our people will confuse legume dishes with chametz dishes is too remote to be taken into serious consideration.”
Of course nothing in this responsum forbids Reform Jews from following the traditional prohibition as a matter of choice.
An interesting supplement to this discussion involves the famous Maxwell House Hagaddah. The Hagaddah, first published in 1923 and said by its publisher to be the most widely used version in the world, was produced in order to refute the concern by many that coffee beans were, in fact beans and therefore kitniyot and therefore not permitted on Pesach. The coffee bean is, in fact, a berry and not a legume and is therefore kosher for Pesach for all.
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