The Ashkenazic custom to refrain from eating kitniyos on Pesach challenges an increasing number of people today. The Torah permits these items, they ask, so why can’t we eat them? Over the past few years, the Internet has increasingly demanded the abolition of this custom, led by a few renegade rabbis. Let me explain why this movement is wrong by focusing on a particular rabbi who claims that Ashkenazim in Israel can abandon this ancient custom.
This rabbi makes two points:
1. Among halachic authorities, there are opponents to the custom of refraining from eating kitniyos. He quotes the Tur, Beis Yosef and Rav Yaakov Emden (although he fails to note that the first two were Sephardim and the third grew up in a Sephardic community).
2. Historically, Israel is a Sephardic country and therefore Ashkenazim are obligated to accept Sephardic customs when moving to Israel.
Therefore, he argues, Ashkenazim do not need to follow their traditional custom of refraining from eating kitniyos. This argument is irresponsible and wrong. First, his list is selective because he fails to account for the many others who accept the custom as binding, such as the Maharil, Rema, Gra, Chayei Adam, Mishnah Berurah, Aruch Ha-Shulchan, etc.
Second, the question of Ashkenazim in Israel has merit except for one thing: timing. The matter has been settled for over two centuries. As Ashkenazim moved to Israel and established communities, their poskim ruled that they should not abandon their customs. Rav Yisrael of Shklov, a student of the Vilna Gaon who moved to Israel in the early nineteenth century and wrote the important halachic work, Pe’as Ha-Shulchan, argues that Ashkenazim have had a long, if limited, presence in Israel and therefore the new arrivals may establish their own synagogues and continue praying in their traditional variant. The Ashkenazic community in Israel has been growing quickly for over 200 years and has maintained its customs. Now, almost 70 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, there is no room to call for Ashkenazim to adopt Sephardic customs.
Perhaps most importantly, the reason for the custom remains relevant. Rav Yosef Tzvi Rimon writes in an online article:“At first glance, one might have thought that all of the reasons… for forbidding kitniyos on Pesach are no longer relevant today. The truth, however, is that even today these reasons are pertinent. Even today, all types of kitniyos and grains are packaged in the same factories. Thus, we sometimes find wheat kernels in packages of rice, or the like, and therefore the decree should apply today as well. What is more, in recent years food companies have begun to manufacture similar products out of rice and the five grains, such as rice cakes that frequently include the five grains in their ingredients…And furthermore, we should add the words of the Meshech Chochmah (Shemos 12) and the Aruch Ha-Shulchan (Yoreh De’ah 115) that the Sages had additional, concealed reasons for the decrees that they imposed, and we must be very careful not to abolish a customary practice just because it seems to us that the reasons for which it had been instituted no longer apply.”
The leading rabbinic opponent in the past five centuries to the custom of kitniyos, Rav Ya’akov Emden, would also forbid eating kitniyos nowadays despite his opposition to the custom. In Responsa Mor U-Ketzi’ah (Orach Chaim 453), Rav Ya’akov Emden points out that there are a few technical problems with permitting kitniyos to Ashkenazim:
1. You are not allowed to permit a practice that is technically permissible but has been knowingly accepted as forbidden (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 214:1). The community that has accepted it is bound by a vow to observe the prohibition.
2. The court that permits it will be called by the people overly permissive, which is not appropriate (see Avodah Zarah 37a; Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Mamrim 2:8).
3. The rulings of a court may only be annulled by a court that is greater in wisdom and number (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Mamrim 2:2).
For these reasons, Rav Ya’akov Emden said that he and his father would only permit kitniyos if the other great authorities of their generation would agree with them. This would solve problems 2 & 3. Problem 1 is solved because kitniyos causes problems: poor people do not have enough to eat and have to bake so many extra matzos to feed their families that they cannot be sufficiently careful in preventing them from rising and becoming chametz. Since revoking this custom will prevent violations, there is no need for a court that is greater in wisdom and number.
Significantly, at no point did Rav Ya’akov Emden nor his father receive the approval of their contemporaries to permit kitniyos. Additionally, the reality has changed since then. With the widespread availability of machine-made matzos (at the time of this writing, Streit’s matzah is available online for $2.20/lb), this is not a custom that leads to violations. Furthermore, the Maharatz Chajes (Minchas Kena’os in Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chajes, vol. 2 pp. 627-630) disputes the idea that since this custom leads to violations it can be annulled without a court that is greater in wisdom and number. Because this custom spread so widely, argues the Maharatz Chajes, it does not fall under the loophole that Rav Ya’akov Emden was attempting to apply.
Another argument offered against kitniyos is that, as communities intermarry, family practices become tricky. My sister married a Sephardi, so she and her children eat kitniyos on Pesach. My parents keep some kitniyos food for my celiac niece. People argue that this confusing situation causes difficulty. However, having dealt with mixed family practices about gebroks, I think kitniyos is relatively easy to handle with a little planning and care. Our customs are too precious to give up for a little added convenience.