Legumes (kitniot)
Legumes (kitniot)CC-BY-3.0 CSIRO via Wikimedia Commons

The beans have been spilt on kitniot, at least according to some very progressive sources in the Orthodox world. Over the last several years, many Orthodox Jews have become vocal about their irritation at what they think is too restrictive a custom – refraining from eating legumes over Passover. The subject comes up periodically for Rabbi Zvi Leshem of Efrat, who in 2011 (5771) wrote his own responsum (teshuvah) on the subject of kitniot on Passover.

“Part of the reason that I wrote my teshuvah is that not just some people are being too machmir (strict) but some too meikil (lenient),” says Rabbi Leshem, who asserts that there has been a dichotomous trend of some Orthodox Jews becoming more austere and others far too liberal about the subject.

Rabbi Leshem sees two juxtaposing movements. On the one side, you will have figures like Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, who said yesterday in an interview with Arutz Sheva “many of those behind the trend (to lift a ban on kitniot) are simply looking for a way to weaken the Halachic system – and it starts with uprooting customs."

He continued, “The Reform movement began with small things: musical instruments in the synagogue and prayers in the German language. But the purpose was to uproot the entire Halachah.”

Rabbi Leshem has much more of an issue with the methodology that more liberal Orthodox have used to justify their abrogation of the anti-kitniot custom, but he thinks extending the analogy to the Reform Movement is itself an exaggeration.

“I think that's kind of extreme (to draw the analogy) because the people who are against the minhag are very God-fearing people,” says Leshem. “Machon Shilo for instance; I know some of those people and think they are good Jews. I think they were completely incorrect, but I wouldn’t accuse them of (something like) Reform.”

Machon Shilo is a Jewish-learning center led by Rabbi David Bar-Hayim in Jerusalem, which has a particular philosophical mission to “implement traditions and rulings found in the ancient sources of Land of Israel” such as the Talmud Yerushalmi and reimplementation of other customs Rabbi Bar-Hayim says should take precedence in Israel over other customs. One of those customs, Bar-Hayim has argued in the past, is refraining from kitniot on Passover.

That being said, Leshem went on to explain how he likely agrees with some aspects of Ariel’s thinking, in that the Halakhic reasoning organizations like Machon Shilo use is very flawed.

“I think their methodology in this particular p’sak (decision) was very strange. They brought a minimal number of sources and based (their reasoning) on this idea that there was never a minhag in the Land of Israel.”

“It is very unconvincing saying it was minhag only for Jews in hutz la'aretz (outside Israel). It has been almost 1,000 years. To abrogate a minhag like that requires posek (Jewish authority) of high stature with very strong and convincing arguments. They are not the gedolei hador and their methodology was not convincing at all (to justify) such a radical change.”

For Rabbi Leshem, it reflects some ignorance about Halakhic decisions are made more than a desire to uproot the entire system. Beyond that, he also does not see this trend as a sort of slippery slope that would reflect a Reform-like shift from Halakhah.

“I certainly don’t see them as Reform - I don’t think so. People are throwing out an important minhag based on an assumption that 'Oh, if these Rabbis say it, (then) it's okay.' But some people don’t understand the important Halachic details.”

Rabbi Leshem also points to confusion about the leniency for using kitniot derivatives like oils. He says that often people will cite specific teshuvot (responsa) from Rabbi Kook about sesame oil or Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on peanut oil to justify an argument against oils entirely, when in fact those teshuvot were so important precisely because they highlighted specific exceptions to the general rule that even legume oils were not permissible. He does seem to agree with Rabbi Yaakov Ariel though that there is confusion in the other direction as well, as both agree that items like canola oil could not possibly be included in a ban on kitniot.

“Canola is not really from a food source, so it’s not logical,” says Rabbi Leshem. His point is that the source of canola is the rape seed (pronounced like the style of music, not the crime), which prior to a very thorough mechanical process to extract the seed’s oil is impossible for use as a staple (the name in fact is an honorific to the University of Manitoba in Canada where the oil was first produced, hence “canola” being a nickname for “Canadian oil”).

When Arutz Sheva asked if clearer labeling on kosher-for-Passover products would alleviate a lot of the confusion, Rabbi Leshem agreed categorically.

“Yeah, I think that is a big problem. People ask questions about this all the time – ‘Can I get this?’ or ‘Can I get that?’ For most of these products, the kitniot are batul b'rov (nullified by virtue of not being the majority of the ingredients). It leads to the frustration that people want to drop the minhag altogether.”

“Rabbi Reem HaKohen of Otniel has been very emphatic that the Rabbanut should stop writing "lokhlei kitniyot bilvad" (for kiniot-eaters only’)on labels because it misleads the public, causes people to waste money, buy food that is more expensive, buy food that is less healthy and limits their simhat yom tov for no reason.”

Rabbi Leshem wants people to realize there is a balance to strike on this issue.

“It is very important for people to take minhag seriously and not lightly decide to disregard one.”