Word of the Day / Kitniyot: Not Just a Passover Controversy

Spilling the beans on the Hebrew word for legumes, a surprisingly hot potato for the festival of freedom.

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Some Israelis don't eat these on PassoverCredit: Dreamstime
Shoshana Kordova

There has been a lot of talk about kitniyot (keet-nee-YOTE) this Passover season, what with the U.S. kosher food giant Manischewitz creating a line of kosher-for-Passover foods for those who eat products made out of rice, corn or legumes, and many Ashkenazim in Israel and abroad deciding that – in spite of a widespread prohibition for Jews of Eastern European or German descent – they will not be forgoing those foods.

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The Torah prohibits the consumption of chametz – leavened grains such as wheat, barley, rye, oats and spelt – on Passover. Much later, the Shulhan Arukh book of Jewish law, codified in the 16th century, discussed grains and legumes that can be cooked in a manner similar to chametz grains – in other words, kitniyot (pronounced in the English-speaking Jewish world as KIT-nee-yote or KIT-nee-yose). Ashkenazi rabbis ruled that these foods are forbidden because of concerns that the grains could get mixed together in the field and that people might get confused between flour made from different kinds of grains, and in both cases end up accidentally eating chametz.

Sephardi rabbis permit their followers to eat these foods, and they are widely available on Passover in Israel.

But while Jews outside of Israel tend to talk about kitniyot only in a Passover context, and to include nonlegumes like corn and rice in this category, in Hebrew the word does not retire once Passover ends.

Rather, kitniyot – which is related to the Akkadian word kitnu – is the standard Hebrew word for legumes (but not the other kinds of foods in this Passover category), be they beans, lentils, peas, peanuts or that most crucial of Middle Eastern pulses, the chickpea (the primary component of hummus).

Go to a price-comparison website like Zap.co.il to see which supermarket gives you a better deal, and year-round you’ll find a category called “Kitniyot and oils” (if you want a 500-gram package of dried chickpeas, that’ll cost you 5.70 shekels ($1.64) at Rami Levy and more than 7 shekels if you order online at Super-Sol or Mega. Similarly, Veg.co.il, an Israeli website for vegetarians and vegans, describes kitniyot not as a controversial food on the festival of freedom, but as a food group that is “rich in flavor and protein” and “a nutritional component of unmatched importance.”

You may not care a hill of beans about who eats kitniyot on Passover, but at least now that I’ve spilled the legumes, you know how to ask the friendly supermarket employee which aisle houses the split peas (which doesn’t mean it’s where you’ll find the rice). Now all we need to do is find some friendly supermarket employees, whether it’s Passover or any other week of the year.

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To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day

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