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The Sages of Ashkenaz and Kitniyot

Whether Ashkenazim should continue to observe the prohibition of eating kitniyot on Passover has been discussed ad nauseam for quite some time. IMHO, do whatever you want and get over it. Personally, I eat any kitniyot which were not known in Ashkenaz during the 12-13th centuries, e.g. corn, when this custom took root and derivatives of any kitniyot. During the past year the opinion of Rabbi David Bar-Hayim has been getting a lot of coverage in the print and electronic media. (see here, here, and here) There are a number of small things in his words which I will not dwell on, but there is one major claim which we now know is simply incorrect. He claims that

The common denominator of all the Halakhic codifiers who mention this minhagh is easy to spot: they all resided in France.

What of Germany (Ashkenaz)? The medieval authorities there were either silent or openly opposed to the custom, exemplified by this statement of R. Ya’aqov, son of the Rosh, in his famous work the Tur: “This is an extreme stringency and it is not the custom”.

This is incorrect for two reasons. The first is that the custom was also known in Provence which is NOT the same geographic, cultural, nor halakhic area as Northern France. They must be treated as two distinct areas. The second reason is that we know that the prohibition of not eating kitniyot was already an established custom in Germany in the early 13th century. Dr. Simha Emmanuel has published from a ms. the sermon on Passover of Rabbi Eliezer of Worms (1176-1238). In his sermon Rabbi Eliezer states that “ומה שאין אוכלין פולין ועדשים, מפני שיש בהן חיטין” (“And that which they don’t eat beans and lentils is because they have in them wheat.”) See here. Not only does he state as a given the existence of this custom, but he also gives a different reason and this being that mixed in with “beans and lentils” is wheat. This reason for the prohibition reflects the reality of the most important new agricultural practice of this time period, the three-field rotation system. See the following quote from here.

Still another component of the Agricultural Revolution of the Middle Ages was the development of the three-field rotation system. The classic two-field farming system of the Mediterranean regions of antiquity typically involved farming one field while leaving another fallow. In the new three-field pattern that arose on the European plain, arable land was divided into three fields with plantings rotated over a three-year cycle: two seasonal plantings employed two fields, a winter wheat crop and a spring crop of oats, peas, beans, barley, and lentils, with the third field left fallow.

As I said before, do whatever you want regarding the customary prohibition of eating kitniyot during Passover, but the claim that it has no basis in reality is now known to most likely be untrue.

2 Responses to “The Sages of Ashkenaz and Kitniyot”

  1. 1
    David Kagan:

    Hello:

    I do not believe the three field rotation was significant enough to generate a fear of Kitniot. The Mishna and Talmudim all discuss multiple crop rotations (even if only two) and more importantly fields of beans adjacent to grain fields (even the “spotted” fields within fields) and no one worried about Passover and Kitniyot.

    I would suggest the fear that generated the Issur of Kitniot was the encounter with oats. Oats are a northern European grain (unknown in the middle East). When the first settlers migrated to Ashkenaz, they would have encountered a new “grain” that looks and smells like one of the “Five Grains” but was not part of the original five. If I am not sure of the definition of “grain” regarding the Issur of Chametz, it is an easy matter to be strict and forbid Kitniot.

    This does not change your central thesis. The reason I prefer the oats hypothesis is that it is more significantly different than just the handling of crops or the location of the mill, which is not that different between Ashkenaz and Sephardic locales.

  2. 2
    Joe in Australia:

    I like the crop-rotation idea because it explains why the minhag arose at that time and spread quickly. I agree that the idea of bean fields planted near wheat fields wasn’t new, but this regular crop rotation changed farming practices. Now every farmer who grew wheat would also grow (and process and store) beans, so the storage houses would inevitably have some wheat kernels among the beans. Now every bean field had recently been used for wheat, and would inevitably have self-sown wheat growing among the bean stalks. The prohibition on kilayim may also have influenced the minhag, since the Torah explicitly warns us of the “taste” of one plant being transferred to another.

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