Are 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.
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):
- These pictures depict the flours a day-and-a-half later (2/25/13 – morning):
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.