Q: What are kitniyot?
A: Kitniyot are grains and legumes. Since the middle ages, Ashkenazi Jews have accepted upon themselves to abstain from these foods during Passover. The custom developed because: 1) these items are similar to, and can be confused with chametz, and 2) they may be mixed with other grains, since they are often grown and/or processed near chametz.
Q: If I am an Ashkenazi Jew, does that mean that I must sell or remove kitniyot from my home before Passover?
A: The prohibitions of ownership or benefit according to the Torah are with derivatives of the five grains (wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye) that can become chametz.
There is no custom to remove kitniyot from one’s home. In fact, if one has a pet, one may feed it kitniyot, such as millet. However, if there is likelihood that a kitniyot-based product may contain chametz, it is advisable to sell it.
Q: What is included in the custom?
A: Kitniyot generally refers to any of the following: beans, buckwheat, caraway, cardamom, corn, fennel, fenugreek, lentils, millet, mustard, peas, poppy seeds, rapeseed, rice, sesame seeds, soybeans, and sunflower seeds. Many Ashkenazi Jews in the United States treat peanuts as kitniyot.
Q: What about quinoa?
A: Quinoa is not a grain (it is a chenopod, closely related to species such as beets, spinach and tumbleweeds), but it looks very similar to grain. Additionally, quinoa can be ground into flour and is often processed at factories that handle wheat or other grains. If we assume any item that can be confused with chametz and/or processed near chametz should be considered kitniyot, quinoa should therefore be prohibited as well. That is why a number of rabbinical authorities believe that it is kitniyot.
However, there are a number of other great rabbinical authorities who believe that kitniyot is not an abstract, all-inclusive category. According to these opinions, the custom applies only to particular species that Ashkenazi Jews have traditionally decided to refrain from. Therefore, since there was never such a widespread custom to refrain from quinoa, it should be acceptable.
Since there are varying opinions amongst many rabbinical authorities, it is best to ask your local rabbi which opinion you should follow.
Q: My child has a limited diet. He mostly eats formula that is largely based on corn and soy. What should he do during Passover?
A: Because refraining from kitniyot is merely a custom, children, the elderly and others with limited diets are allowed to consume kitniyot as needed. However, one should confirm that the kitniyot item does not contain any chametz. The OU Passover website lists OU certified formulas and dietary supplements that have been determined to contain kitniyot only.
Q: I have heard that aspartame (an artificial sweetener) is derived from corn. How can so many Passover products use it?
A: There is a major rabbinical discussion whether prohibited items that undergo a significant structural and chemical change lose their prohibited status.
Although kashrut organizations are stringent in cases when the original products are biblically or rabbinically prohibited, many are lenient with kitniyot, which is only a custom. However, this applies only to corn or other kitniyot derivatives that undergo major changes with regards to both their taste and chemical structures.
Rabbi David Polsky is the voice at the end of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Consumer Hotline. Last year, he answered more than 2,000 phone calls in the two weeks before Passover. For more information, visit www.oupassover.org or call the hotline at (212) 613-8241.