According to Jewish tradition, it is not permitted to eat fermented grain products (called hametz) during the entire Passover week. The Mishnah specifically mentions wheat (hittim), barley (seorim), spelt [also known as farro] (kusmin), rye (shifon) and oats (shibolet shual) (M. Pes. 2: 5). [Danby translates kusmin as “goat-grass”]. Ashkenazic Jews add to this list of prohibited food items rice, millet, corn, beans and other legumes (called kitniyot) in Hebrew. Most Sephardic Jews do not follow this custom and eat rice and other legumes during Passover.
What is the reason for this prohibition that emerged among Jews of Eastern European background? Apparently, the custom originated in France in the 13th century and from there it spread to other Jewish communities in Europe. According to some sources, the reason is that these legumes resemble grain. Some point out that rice also “rises” when cooked in water. Others argue that some people could become confused and actually resort to making flour out of them.
In 1988, a prominent conservative Rabbi in Israel, David Golinkin, wrote a responsum on this subject and stated that the actual reason for this custom is unknown, and in fact contradicts an explicit statement in the Talmud (BT Pes. 114b). He also quoted another medieval Rabbi, Rabbi Yeruham, who called it “a foolish custom.” [See a longer article online by Jeffrey Spitzer, “Kitniyot, Not Quite Hametz” in My Jewish Learning].
Similarly, the CCAR, in its 1996 responsum on this subject, indicated that the early Reform Jews in Europe found this custom unnecessary and burdensome, and abolished it. It also stated that the “Reform practice, following the standard of the Talmud, permits the eating of rice and legumes during Passover,” but added that some observant Reform Jews may continue to follow the Ashkenazic tradition, if they wish.
I think it is time to eliminate this unnecessary burden on our fellow Jews. As a Sephardic Jew, I will continue to eat rice and legumes, without any sense of guilt.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.