Each Pesach (Passover), I find myself wondering how it could be that oats are one of the grains which Jews are not to eat during the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, unless in the form of matzah. In the field–and those who originally developed the laws certainly knew their fields–oats do not look anything like wheat or barley, which are two key grains that everyone agrees come under the restriction.
Balashon (a great blog on Hebrew word origins) notes:
[In] Jewish law, there are five species of grain in the Land of Israel that have special laws relating to them – what blessing is made, can they be used to make matza (or do they constitute chametz), must one “separate challah” with bread made from them, and more. As described in the Mishna (Hallah 1:1), the five grains are:
החיטים, והשעורים, והכוסמין, ושיבולת שועל והשיפון
chitim, seorim, kusmin, shibolet shual, shifon
The first two, chitim and seorim, are wheat and barley. Shibolet shual is generally understood to be oats, even if the more common term in modern Hebrew is apparently kvaker (a transliteration of Quaker!).
It is likely that shibolet shual is actually another type of barley–some authorities say it is two-row barley, as opposed to the 4 or 6-row type meant by seorim (as explained at the same Balashon post). There is also a controversy over what shifon is. Usually it is said to be rye, others say spelt. Neither is likely, as these grains were apparently not grown in the ancient Land of Israel, Egypt, or the other lands in which these traditions originate. Emer wheat is one good possibility, notes Balashon. The word in modern Hebrew means buckwheat, but “Unlike shibolet shual and shifon, there’s no halachic opinion that buckwheat is one of the five grains.” So if we can agree that buckwheat is too distinctive from wheat and barley to be subject to the matzah laws of Pesach, despite the etymological confusion, why not oats? They are also a very different plant.
Oats, when they are about to be harvested, look like this:
Wheat and barley (and rye and spelt, among others) look more like this (especially the stalk in the lower left):
I don’t actually know what grains we are looking at in that picture. There are several grains here, including some oats. But the main stalks you see there are not oats, and it should be pretty obvious how different most of what you see in this picture is from the the field shown in the first.
Oats rise above the other grains that sprout in our fields.*
Here is hoping we can at last rise above the prohibition on oats,** which is quite likely based on a historical error. Given how difficult it is to get across the point that beans, rice, and other “kitniyot” should not be banned during Pesach, I am not optimistic about the great oat shake-up that I am advocating.
Anyway, Chag Sameach!
* All photos in this post are from our property, except for the first one, which is of the oat farm across the road from us. In each case, you may click the image to see a larger version. And there are several more grainy photos at the Flickr site.
** One big advantage: it would make life easier for those who are gluten-intolerant, and eat oats as a result of the fact that oats do not have gluten. (Some gluten-sensitive people need to get oats that are gluten-free, which I assume means not cross-contaminated, given that the grains that actually have the offending gluten–wheat, barely, etc.–can’t be made free of it. Disclaimer: I am not giving medical or dietary advice here, nor am I a plant geneticist!)
My preference for reclassifying oats would also have the consequence of rendering some products no longer halachically acceptable at the Pesach seder. So, in that sense, it would make life for the gluten-intolerant more difficult! I guess we can’t have it both ways: if oats are not shibolet shual and are not related to the other grains, such that all of the species relevant to Pesach rituals are (inadvertently) those with gluten, then you can’t satisfy the mitzvah of matzah with oat products. However, under the reclassification of oats, you would get to eat your oat granola all through the festival week! (Further disclaimer: I am not giving halachic advice, either! But not counting oats as one of the five species is my practice.)