Kitniyot, (Hebrew: קִטְנִיּוֹת ,קיטניות, qit'niyyot) (legumes) is a Hebrew word meaning legumes. During the Passover holiday, the word kitniyot takes on a broader meaning to include the category of foods that may not be eaten during Passover by Jews following traditional Ashkenazi laws and customs. Long-standing tradition in other communities and recent rulings have given support in certain cases for variation from this practice.
Kitniyot according to the Passover tradition includes legumes, but also grains and seeds. Examples include rice, corn, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, soy beans, peas, and lentils.
Laws and customs
The Halakhic argument (the argument according to Jewish law and tradition) against eating kitniyot during Passover is an extension of the prohibition on leaven (chametz), which originated in early medieval France and later flourished in high medieval Ashkenazi (Rhineland) Germany.
The Torah (Exodus 13:3) prohibits Jews from eating chametz during Passover. Chametz is only leaven made from the "five grains": wheat, spelt, barley, shibbolet shu'al (two-rowed barley, according to Maimonides; oats according to Rashi) or rye. There are additional rabbinic prohibitions against eating these grains in any form other than matzo.
Among Ashkenazi Jews, the custom (minhag) during Passover is to refrain from not only products of the five grains but also other grains and legumes. Traditions of what is considered kitniyot vary from community to community but generally include maize (North American corn), as well as rice, peas, lentils, and beans. Many also include other legumes, such as peanuts and soy, in this prohibition. The Chayei Adam considers potatoes not to be kitniyot, and decided that because potatoes were unknown in the time when the prohibition was created they could not have been included in the prohibition (Sha'arei Teshuvah 453:1). This opinion is followed today by nearly all Ashkenazi authorities. Sephardi Jews typically do not observe the ban on kitniyot, although some groups do abstain from the use of dried pulses during Passover.
The origins of this practice is not clear, though two common theories are that these items are often made into products resembling chametz (e.g. cornbread), or that these items were normally stored in the same sacks as the five grains and people worried that they might become contaminated with chametz. It is also possible that crop rotation would result in the forbidden chametz grains growing in the same fields, and being mixed in with the kitniyot. Those authorities concerned with these three issues suggested that by avoiding eating kitniyot, people would be better able to avoid chametz. Vilna Gaon (Hagaos HaGra, ibid.) proposes a different source for this custom. The Gemara in Pesachim (40b) notes that Rava objected to the workers of the Exilarch cooking a food called chasisi on Pesach, since it was wont to be confused with chametz. Tosafot understand that chasisi are lentils, and thus, argues Vilna Gaon, establishes the basis for the concern for kitniyot. Rabbi David Golinkin in the Responsa of the Masorati (Conservative) Movement cites Rabbenu Manoah (Provence, ca. 1265) who wrote an opinion in his commentary on Maimonides (Laws of Festivals and Holidays 5:1) that "It is not proper to eat kitniyot on holidays because it is written (in Deuteronomy 16:14) that ‘you shall rejoice in your festivals’ and there is no joy in eating dishes made from kitniyot". Lentils were a food of mourners.
Jewish law is quite stringent about the prohibition against chametz in the house during Passover, even in small amounts. Thus a tradition developed to avoid these products altogether.
Even where the prohibition against kitniyot was practiced, some poskim opposed it, among them Rabbi Yeruham of 14th century Provence. Others, including Rav Moshe Feinstein did not advocate abandoning the custom, but he opposed expanding the list of forbidden kitniyot 
Orthodox Rabbi David Bar-Hayim at 'Beth HaWaad' beth din of Machon Shilo and Conservative Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies are among the rabbis who assert that consuming kitniyot is permissible for Ashkenazim in Israel. According to The Forward, some Israelis are choosing a more permissive rabbinical interpretation of kitniyot, which allows for the consumption of a wider range of formerly banned items.
Maxwell House coffee hired the Joseph Jacobs advertising firm in the 1930s to market to a Jewish demographic. The agency hired a rabbi to research coffee, resulting in a determination that the coffee bean is more like a berry than a bean, thus making it kosher for Passover.
American Judaism and Kitniyot
While most Conservative Jews observe the tradition of avoiding kitniyot during Passover, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, an authoritative body in Conservative Judaism, issued two responsa in December 2015 that said it was now permissible to eat these previously prohibited foods throughout the world. These responsa were based on a 1989 responsa by the Responsa Committee of the Israeli Conservative Movement that permitted Conservative Jews in Israel to eat kitniyot.
Reform Jewish authorities, such as the Responsa Committee of the Reform Jewish Movement for the principal organization of Reform rabbis in the United States and Canada, have also ruled in favor of permitting kitniyot. Reform Judiasm first formally permitted eating kitniyot during Passover in the 19th century.
Some Orthodox rabbis, such as the Machon Shilo institute's David Bar-Hayim, have argued that the prohibition of kitniyot, while appropriate in Eastern Europe where the Askenazi tradition began, should not apply to the United States or Israel. However, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and other Orthodox organizations still maintain that the prohibition is binding on all Ashenazic Jews worldwide. The Orthodox Union maintains a kitniyot hechsher intended for non-Ashkenazic Jews who consume kitniyot on Passover.
While eating kitniyot has become more common in Israel, due in large part to the influence of Sephardic Jewish food customs, it is not yet clear whether Conservative and Reform Jews in America will embrace the new rulings or continue to refrain from kitniyot.
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