It's time for the annual conundrum over kitniyot - legumes - a Passover legacy that has divided Ashkenazi Jews and those of Sephardic-North African origin for generations - and has been the source of vehement debates and no small share of humor.

The prohibition against eating leaven on Passover applies to products made from five types of grain - wheat, spelt, barley, rye and oats. But during the 13th century the leaders of communities in France began extending this prohibition to the consumption of legumes, because of the way the legumes were grown and transported. At the time there was a real concern that grains might become mixed among the legumes, and thus they issued a blanket prohibition against eating things like corn, beans, peas and rice.

This custom became entrenched and expanded, and is followed to this day, even though modern farming, packing and transportation methods make such mixing highly unlikely. The Sephardic communities, however, never accepted this prohibition, and to this day most communities consume legumes freely. Thus the Internet meme that has been circulating on Facebook these past few weeks reading, “Once again this year in Israel there will be hundreds of thousands of people who have nothing to eat for the holiday. They’re called Ashkenazim.”

The kitniyot debate has grown more intense over the past century. For example, even if a certain type of produce is a forbidden legume, is the oil derived from it also forbidden? In recent years, a fierce debate has centered on quinoa, which has been forbidden for Passover by most Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis even though it is not a grain or a legume, but a vegetable, and was certainly not known to the rabbis at the time the kitniyot ban was issued.

Other questions are generated by the increasing number of mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi couples in Israel, who seek guidance on what to do when hosted by the Sephardic side of the family.

At the fringes of the observant Ashkenazi community, a rebellion against what some consider an excess stringency has been fomenting. This year a group calling itself the Kitniyot Liberation Front opened a Facebook page, calling the online community to challenge the accepted custom.

The issue, according to one of its manifestos, is not that people can’t manage for a week without hummus. “That totally misses the point. The debate is on a key point affecting our people: The gradual adaption of stringencies that are imposed on the whole community because of a local custom. Adding obstacles on obstacles until no one knows where the real lines [of Jewish law] once were is dangerous and contributes to people losing all faith in the halakhic process altogether.”

The Beit Hillel rabbinic organization is trying to block the sweeping move toward halakhic stringencies in the Orthodox community. This week the group issued a position paper on kitniyot that doesn’t break any new halakhic ground but conveys a message against going overboard on the kitniyot issue.

“Specifically on this holiday, when during the time the Temple was standing the paschal sacrifice was eaten together, it’s proper to try to reduce what divides different communities,” the organization said in a statement.

“Therefore, it seems that even those who observe this custom can, when being hosted, be lenient on issues in which there are opinions allowing leniencies for people careful about the kitniyot custom on Passover.”

For example, the Beit Hillel rabbis rule, “One can eat with utensils in which kitniyot were cooked or served. One can eat a food that was cooked with kitniyot as long as the food is separated from the kitniyot. For example: chicken cooked with rice is permitted to eat after the rice is removed.

“One can also be lenient with goods that included rapeseed, canola oil or cottonseed oil, and there are those who are lenient with other kitniyot oils as well,” they add.

Beit Hillel leader Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth of Ra’anana said, “I am aware of the ‘kitniyot rebellion,’ particularly among the younger generation.”
Why now?

“Because over the past 20 years there have been a lot of stringencies regarding kitniyot. People are looking for how to be more strict on Passover. It creates an opposing reaction of wanting to dump the whole custom.”