In addition to the Torah’s prohibition of chametz on Pesach, many people have the custom to refrain from consuming kitniyot as well.
The earliest literature regarding kitniyot dates back over 700 years. The Smak (Rabbi Yitzchak of Korbol), who lived in the 13th century, writes about the custom of kitniyot that had been practiced in his times for many generations!
In order to appreciate the custom of kitniyot, let us first make an observation about the nature of the prohibition of chametz on Pesach.
Among the foods that the Torah has forbidden, there is a wide range of rules and regulations. Some foods are only forbidden to be eaten (i.e. typical non-kosher); monetary and physical benefit is additionally restricted from others (i.e. milk and meat mixtures, and orlah - fruits from a tree that is not yet three years old). The penalty for violation and the rules of nullification vary from item to item.
The prohibition of chametz is unique in its broad applications and its severity of violation. Chametz has the strictest restrictions of all forbidden foods in the Torah. Besides the prohibition of eating chametz, one is forbidden from even owning or benefiting from it as well. Many times, even a small drop of chametz that gets mixed into an otherwise non-chametz food would forbid the entire mixture. The punishment of kares (spiritual excision) for consuming chametz is the most severe penalty that the Torah gives for forbidden food.
With this in mind, we can appreciate that halachah has a heightened cautiousness towards chametz, and that extra safeguards have been set in place in order to avoid chametz. (In addition, since chametz is permitted throughout the year, mistakes are also more likely.)
The custom of kitniyot is a well known example of an instituted safeguard.
The classic kitniyot products are rice, buckwheat, millet, beans, lentils, chickpeas, and mustard seed. Even though kitniyot products are not chametz, Chazal were worried that if we allow their consumption, actual chametz might be consumed as well. One concern is the realistic possibility that wheat or barley kernels, which are similar to kitniyot kernels, might be mixed into the kitniyot. When one would later cook the kitniyot, they would also be cooking some chametz. Another concern was that since one can grind kitniyot into flour and bake or cook them into items that resemble actual chametz, the uninitiated observer might assume that chametz products are permissible. Also, the harvesting and processing of kitniyot is done in a similar way to chametz grains, and again that might lead to confusion. In order to prevent the grave sin of eating chametz, the custom of kitniyot was enacted.
To Whom Does the Custom Apply
As the halachic nature of customs dictates, only those communities which have adopted the custom of kitniyot are bound by it. The Ashkenazi communities of that time certainly accepted this custom, while generally the Sephardic communities did not.
It is interesting that even within the Sephardic communities, there are those who have this custom to some extent. Many members of the Moroccan communities avoid kitniyot, and some Iraqis don’t eat rice. (My friend, whose family is Persian, has a custom not to eat chickpeas. The reason is not based on what is mentioned above, but for a different reason entirely. Chummus is a chickpea product, and since “chummus” sounds like “chametz”, that community had a tradition to avoid chickpeas on Pesach!)
Although kitniyot has the halachic status of a custom, its observance is in no way optional. There are two types of customs: instituted customs and developed customs. Examples of developed customs include eating fried foods on Chanukah and hamantashen on Purim. These customs developed as their practices relate to the holidays. We cherish these customs, but there is no requirement to practice them. An instituted custom, on the other hand, once it has been accepted and practiced, has a similar status to a binding law. If one is of Ashkenazi descent, they are bound to adhere to the custom of kitniyot.
Types of Items Included
The original kitniyot products are rice, buckwheat, millet, beans, lentils, chickpeas, and mustard seed. As new products were introduced and discovered, their kitniyot status needed to be discussed. We find literature in regard to the kitniyot status of potatoes, corn, peanuts, quinoa, and others as well. Since there are many factors to consider, it is apparent that only a Rabbinic authority can decide what is and what is not included in the custom.
Although kitniyot was prohibited out of a concern that it would be confused with chametz, kitniyot does not share the same strict applications of actual chametz. The custom was only enacted to forbid eating kitniyot. One is permitted to own, use, and benefit from kitniyot. Therefore, kitniyot products do not have to be sold with the chametz, and pet food containing kitniyot may be used. The laws of nullification are relaxed as well. In addition, when necessary, sick and elderly people may consume kitniyot products; someone suffering discomfort may take medication that has kitniyot ingredients; and a baby may be fed formula that has kitniyot ingredients.
Pesach is a holiday in which we cherish our heritage and our link back to the earlier generations. Adhering to one’s traditions in regard to kitniyot is a great demonstration of this appreciation.