The Karaite Kitniyot Experiment

PassoverAre Karaites the original Food Detectives?

The Karaites of the middle ages actually conducted experiments to determine whether the flours of grains and kitniyot (usually translated as “legumes”) can become hametz (leaven). And with the help of Yochanan Labombarbe, the Dean of Students for the Karaite Jewish University, we’ve recreated (most of) those experiments.

The general Karaite view is that any flour that leavens can be used to make matzah. But flours that can leaven may not be consumed once they have in fact leavened. And, the general view is that if a flour will never leaven, we can eat it in all its forms during Passover.*

As summarized at the Karaite-Korner, the Karaites of the middle ages initially found through experimentation that the flours of wheat, spelt, barley, oat and rye become hametz. In contrast, the flours of “rice, beans, lentils, and peas do not leaven but spoil.” Later Karaites in the middle ages also found that “millet flour if left with water for a number of days” also leavens.

From these experiments, those Karaites determined that there are six flours (wheat, spelt, barley, oats, rye and millet) that can be used to make matzah, but cannot be consumed if they have leavened.

2013 Results:

In recreating these experiments, Yochanan used a standard sourdough starter recipe (without the yeast) to determine which flours leaven and which flours spoil. The results are what we would have expected.

The flours of rye, barley, and wheat leavened; whereas the flours of corn and rice did not. Here are some pictures showing the flours at various steps in the process.

  • This picture depicts the flours immediately after adding water (2/23/13- after Shabbat):

Flours Immediately After Adding Water

  • These pictures depict the flours a day-and-a-half later (2/25/13 – morning):
Note the leavening of Rye, Barley and Wheat; and the lack of activity of Rice and Corn

Note the leavening of Rye, Barley and Wheat; and the lack of activity of Rice and Corn

Rye and Barley (front) hav been affected in ways the Rice and Corn (back) have not

Rye and Barley (front) have been affected in ways the Rice and Corn (back) have not

2013 Procedure:

In case you want to recreate the experiment for yourself or explain another way to conduct the experiment, here is what Yohanan did.

  • Add 1/4 cup of flour with 1/4 of bottled spring water to a mixing bowl
  • Mix well
  • Cover with a cheese cloth

It really is simple. Not much detective work it turns out.

As alluded to earlier, Yaqub al-Qirqisani reported that millet did not become hametz; but Aharon ben Eliyahu found that millet became hametz after several days. We may do the experiment again in the future with millet to see how long it actually takes to become hametz, if at all.

Happy Passover! And a special thanks to Yochanan.

* As noted in the link at the Karaite-Korner, Karaites themselves debated what precisely is “hametz” and not all Karaites have historically agreed with these dividing lines with respect to the flours.


Filed under Aharon ben Eliyahu, Karaite Korner, Passover, Yaqub al-Qirqisani

3 responses to “The Karaite Kitniyot Experiment

  1. maurice

    This is good to know when debating the Rabbanites. Also, those who feel they do not observe can be assured that they are by way of these simple experiments. I’ll be spreading the word on this one.

  2. lzbthcldwll

    This is interesting. I often make dosa which involves soaking rice and lentils separately and then combining and blending them into a batter. The combination of rice and lentil together DOES indeed leaven and become sour, like a traditional sourdough. Curious why the combo does leaven but not the individual grains do not.

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