Insights into Halacha

For the week ending 27 March 2021 / 14 Nisan 5781

Pesach - The Quinoa Conundrum

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
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Generally speaking, this time of year is the busiest for rabbis the world over; fielding questions on every aspect of the myriad and complex laws of Pesach observance. Yet, interestingly, the question that often seems to be highest on people’s minds is not about chametz or even cleaning properly. No, the biggest issue during the Pre-Pesach Rush in recent years seems to be whether quinoa (pronounced Keen-Waah) is considered kitniyos and whether Ashkenazim can eat it on Pesach. Perhaps, it has something to do with the fact that the U.N. declared 2013 as the “International Year of the Quinoa.” After having received this question numerous times in one day, this author has decided to thoroughly examine the issue.

Quinoa Questions

Quinoa has developed an international following. Packed with protein (essential amino acids) and fiber, as well as magnesium, phosphorus, calcium and iron (and, naturally, cholesterol free!), quinoa packs quite a dietary punch. Although billed as the “Mother of All Grains” and the “Super Grain,” this native of the Andes Mountains (think Bolivia and Peru) is actually a grain that is not. It does not even contain gluten. It turns out that quinoa is really a member of the “goose-foot” family (Chenopodium), related to beets and spinach. However, while its health benefits sound terrific, it still may be problematic on Pesach.

Kitnyos Clash

It is well known that the actual prohibition of chametz on Pesach pertains exclusively to leavened products produced from the five major grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye. Yet, already in place from the times of the Rishonim, there was an Ashkenazic prohibition against eating kitniyos (legumes; ostensibly based on its semi-literal translation of “little things”) on Pesach, except in times of famine or grave need. Although several authorities opposed this prohibition, nonetheless the ban is binding on Ashkenazic Jewry in full force, even today.

The nature of the problem is referred to in slightly different terms by our great luminaries: the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch references the kitniyos restriction as an issur, the Mishnah Berurah calls it a chumrah, the Aruch Hashulchan says it’s a geder, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank calls it a gezeirah, Rav Moshe Feinstein refers to it as a minhag, and the Klausenberger Rebbe denotes it as a takanah. But, nevertheless, they all maintain that the kitniyos prohibition is compulsory on all Ashkenazic Jewry. In fact, the Aruch Hashulchan avers that “once our forefathers have accepted this prohibition upon themselves, it is considered a geder m’din Torah, and one who is lenient is testifying about himself that he has no fear of Heaven.” He adds, echoing Shlomo Hamelech’s wise words in Kohelet regarding a poretz geder: “One who breaks this prohibition deserves to be bitten by a snake.”

Several reasons are given for the actual prohibition, including that kitniyos often grow in close proximity to grain; are commonly stored together with grain and therefore actual chametz might actually end up mixed inside the kitniyos container; cooked dishes made from grain and kitniyos look similar; and that kitniyos can likewise be ground up into flour — a “bread” of sorts can actually be made from them. Since there are many who will not be able to differentiate between these “breads” and their biblically forbidden chametz counterparts, kitniyos was deemed as prohibited.

Potatoes, Peanuts, and Corn…Oh My!

So how does our quinoa measure up? Although it has been used in the Andes for millennia, it has only recently gained popularity around the world. Does quinoa fit the kitniyos criteria or not?

Perhaps we can glean some insight into quinoa’s kitniyos status from halachic precedents of other now-common food staples that were introduced long after the kitniyos prohibition started, such as potatoes, peanuts and corn.

It would seemingly be quite difficult for anyone to mix up potatoes with chametz grain, so citing that rationale to regard potatoes as kitniyos is out. But, potatoes can be and are made into potato flour and potato starch, and there are those who do bake “potato ‘bread”! If so, why would potatoes not be considered kitniyos? According to this, shouldn’t they be forbidden for Ashkenazim to partake of on Pesach?

In fact, a not widely known teaching of the Chayei Adam seemingly considers potatoes as kitniyos, and the Pri Megadim mentioned that he knows of such a custom to prohibit potatoes on Pesach as a type of kitniyos. However, the vast majority of authorities rule that potatoes are not any form of kitniyos and are permissible to all on Pesach.

One of the main reasons for this is that at the time when the Ashkenazic Rishonim established the decree prohibiting kitniyos, potatoes were completely unknown! It is possible that had they been readily available, they might have found themselves on the “forbidden list” as well. Yet, since they were never included, and do not fit most of the kitniyos criteria, contemporary authorities could not add “new types” to the list.

However, it must be noted that there are other important reasons why potatoes were excluded. Of the four criteria given for the decree of kitniyos, potatoes fit only one, that it can be made into flour, and that a “bread” of sorts can be baked from it. No one would mix up a potato with a grain kernel!

As Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach noted, Klal Yisrael never accepted the kitniyos prohibition with the inclusion of potatoes.

We find that similar “New World” logic was used by several Poskim, including Rav Moshe Feinstein, to permit peanuts for Pesach for those who did not have an opposing minhag. Yet, this was not as widely accepted since peanuts, a true legume, and as opposed to potatoes, can get mixed up with grain. In fact, the minhag in Yerushalayim (dating back at least several centuries) is to consider both the peanut and its oil to be kitniyos.

On the other hand, we find that another New World crop, corn, was seemingly unanimously included as part of the kitniyos prohibition. Aside from the fact that the words corn and grain both stem from the same root, corn is actually only the name for the grain called maize, which is used in the United States, Canada, and Australia. In other parts of the English-speaking world and much of Europe, the term “corn” is a generic term for cereal crops, such as real chametz – wheat, barley, oats, spelt or rye. In fact, the infamous British Corn Laws (1815-1846) were concerning wheat and other grains — not corn!

Additionally, corn exhibits many characteristics of real-deal kitniyos: it grows near other grains, has small kernels, is made into flour (that can be easily confused with grain flour), and corn bread is made from it. Therefore, since corn fits many criteria of kitniyos, as opposed to potatoes, it was included in the prohibition.

Contemporary Quinoa Controversy

All this said, we ask: “Which category should quinoa be a part of?”

  • Like the potato and be excluded from the prohibition?
  • Or like corn and be considered kitniyos?

Actually, contemporary authorities and Kashrus agencies have been debating this very question.

It turns out that quinoa is halachically similar to the peanut, meaning that its status is debated.

View # 1 – Quinoa is not Kitniyos (Star-K, cRc, and Kof-K)

Several major American Kashrus agencies, including the Star-K, who follow the psak of Rav Moshe Heinemann, and the cRc (Chicago Rabbinical Council), following the psak of Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz, as well as the Kof-K, maintain that quinoa is essentially Kosher for Pesach. Since it is not even remotely related to the five grains (it is also not a legume and not botanically related to peas and beans, which are of the original species of kitniyos included in the decree), and was not around at the time of the kitniyos prohibition, it is not considered kitniyos. Additionally, the Star-K tested quinoa to see if it would rise — yet, instead, it decayed, which is a sure sign that it is not a true grain. The only issue, according to them, is the fact that quinoa is processed in facilities that other grains are processed in. Therefore, they maintain, if quinoa is processed in facilities under special, reliable Pesach supervision, there is no Pesach problem. In fact, every year since, the Star-K has given special Kosher for Passover hashgacha on certain types of quinoa.

View # 2 — Quinoa is Classified as Kitniyos

However, Rav Yisrael Belsky, zatzal, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaas and chief Posek for the OU, disagreed. He argued that since quinoa fits every criterion for kitniyos, it should be included in its prohibition. Quinoa is the staple grain in its country of origin. It is grown in proximity of and can be mixed up with the five grains. It is collected and processed in the same way (and in the same facilities) as the five grains, and is cooked into porridge and breads, the same as the five grains. He maintained that it should be compared to corn, which was, for similar reasons, included in the kitniyos prohibition.

Although quinoa is a New World food item and was not included in the original prohibition, nevertheless, he explained that that line of reasoning applies exclusively to items that are not clearly kitniyos, to foods that may share only several characteristics with kitniyos. However, since quinoa and corn would certainly have been included in the gezeira had they been discovered, as they share every criterion of kitniyos, they are consequently, by definition, considered kitniyos. This stringent view is shared by the rulings of Rav Dovid Feinstein, Rav Osher Yaakov Westheim of the Badatz Igud Rabbanim of Manchester, and Rav Shlomo Miller of Toronto, among other well-known Rabbanim.

The OU and OK’s Approach

On the other hand, the OU’s other main Posek, Rav Herschel Schachter, Rosh Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (Y.U.), permits quinoa, concluding that if it processed in a special facility with no other grains, it should be permitted for Passover use.

Due to the difference of opinions of their top Poskim, until fairly recently, the OU did not certify quinoa as Kosher for Pesach. However, in late 2013, the OU made a decision allowing quinoa for Pesach, provided that it is processed with special Passover supervision. In fact, the OU recommended quinoa for Pesach 2014, and actually started certifying special Pesach processing runs. This certification continued for Pesach 2015, and currently the OU continues to grant special Pesach supervision annually for quinoa.

Similarly, although the OK considered quinoa kitniyos for many years, in 2018 they reversed their longstanding policy and no longer regard quinoa as kitniyos. As such, they presently allow it to be served at their Pesach programs, provided that it has supervision and certification for Pesach. However, they currently do not actually grant certification to quinoa as “Kosher for Passover.”

Other Agencies and Poskim

Although by 2019 all the American “Big Five” kashrut agencies had either permitted or actually certified quinoa for Pesach, on the other hand, not every kashrut agency in North America agrees with this permissive ruling. For example, the Hisachdus HaRabbanim (CRC) does not recommend quinoa for Pesach, as they consider it kitniyos, as does the COR of Toronto and the MK of Montreal. This is also the Badatz Eidah Hachareidis of Yerushalayim’s approach, as in their annual Madrichei HaKashrus they maintain that food items which are planted in the ground as seeds (zironim), harvested as seeds (garinim) and are edible, are considered kitniyos. As mentioned previously, the Yerushalmi mesorah for this goes back centuries. They therefore quite definitively include quinoa as kitniyos.

The View from Israel

Other Poskim who ruled similarly include Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who determined that quinoa should be considered kitniyos after being shown it and hearing from representatives of various kashrus agencies. Also, Rav Asher Weiss (the renowned Minchas Asher) addressed this topic in his weekly halacha shiur, as well as in several responsa (including one to this author), and concluded that it is indeed kitniyos. This is also the opinion of Rav Yehoshua Yeshaya Neuwirth, venerated author of Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchasa, Rav Yaakov Ariel of Ramat Gan, and Rav Mordechai Najari of Ma’aleh Adumim. Similarly, the current Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Dovid Lau, wrote that quinoa is permitted on Pesach only for “Ochlei Kitniyot.”’ This also appears to be the Israeli Rabbanut’s position.

Additionally, the largest Sefardic kashrut agencies in Israel, the Beit Yosef and Rav Shlomo Machpud’s Yoreh Deah, although giving hashgacha on quinoa for Pesach, both qualify that it is reserved exclusively for “Ochlei Kitniyot,” squarely calling quinoa kitniyot. In light of all this, in addition to the Badatz Eidah Hachareidis’s prevailing approach of following the Yerushalmi custom that is based on the students of the Vilna Gaon, it seems much less likely to see quinoa gracing Pesach tables in Eretz Yisrael.

A Balanced Approach

Rav Avraham Blumenkrantz, zatzal, in his annual Kovetz Hilchos Pesach, took a middle of the road approach, acknowledging both sides of this quinoa quarrel. He did not give carte blanche for everyone to use it on Pesach, but concluded that anyone who suffers from gluten or any Pesach-related allergies or conditions (e.g., celiac) may comfortably use quinoa on Pesach without hesitation. This is also the opinion of Rav Dovid Ribiat, author of The Thirty-Nine Melachos, as well as the view of the London Beis Din (KLBD).

Rav Mordechai Tendler, grandson of Rav Moshe Feinstein and author of Mesores Moshe, told this author that this is the approach that he felt his venerated grandfather would have taken, and not (as many mistakenly opine) that Rav Moshe would have permitted it outright, had quinoa been introduced while he was still alive.

In this author’s estimation, the point Rav Tendler was making is that there seems to be a common misconception that Rav Moshe Feinstein, in his oft-cited teshuva defining peanuts’ kitniyos status, gave a blanket hetter for any “New World” food item. In this author’s opinion, this is not entirely correct as, as I mentioned previously, everyone considers corn as kitniyos even though it was introduced long after the kitniyos restriction. Rather, Rav Moshe used that as a sevara (and he was neither the first nor the only Posek to do so) to explain why potatoes were not included in the restriction, as well as peanuts for those who did not have an existing minhag.

Meaning, Rav Moshe held that minhag and similarity to all kitniyos factors also play an important role in classifying kitniyos. Therefore, he did not intend to give a blanket permit for every “new food.” As such, Rav Tendler was relating that it would seem tenuous at best to apply that teshuva as the exclusive basis to a hetter permitting quinoa for Pesach.

This is also the understanding of his uncle, Rav Moshe’s son, Rav Dovid Feinstein, as well as his father and Rav Moshe’s son-in-law, Rav Moshe Dovid Tendler, both of whom do not recommend Ashkezaim eating quinoa on Pesach. In fact, this is explicitly written as Rav Moshe’s halachic view in the recently published Mesores Moshe vol. 2, where Rav Moshe related that although corn is also a New World food item, it was nonetheless added to the restriction since it fits many of the same criteria of the prohibited kitniyos, as opposed to potatoes and peanuts.

Quinoa Conclusion?

It seems that there truly is no quiet clear-cut conclusion to this contemporary kashrus controversy. May one eat it on Pesach? One must ask his own personal, local halachic authority for guidance to clear up any quinoa /kitniyos kashrus confusion or questions.

All else being equal, in this author’s mind one thing is certain, regarding a holiday that is all about mesorah and tradition: Quinoa was not served at Bubby’s Seder!

*Rabbi Yehuda Spitz is the author of recently published, highly acclaimed sefer called Food: A Halachic Analysis, published by Mosaica Press, which is reviewed elsewhere in this issue of Ohrnet Magazine by Rabbi Shlomo Simon.

Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive guide, rather a brief summary to raise awareness of the issues. In any real case one should ask a competent Halachic authority.

L'iluy Nishmas the Rosh HaYeshiva - Rav Chonoh Menachem Mendel ben R' Yechezkel Shraga, Rav Yaakov Yeshaya ben R' Boruch Yehuda.

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