Oats as One of the Five Grains and as a Source for Matzah on Pesach
Guest post by R. Michael J. Broyde
Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University, was the founding rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta and is a dayan in the Beth Din of America
My view is that whether oats is one of the five grains remains a dispute between the rishonim and for matters of Torah law (and certainly for the mitzvah of matzah), one ought to be strict for both views. A survey of the rishonim and the Talmud sources makes my reasons clear.
The earliest source I am aware of to discuss this topic is the Aruch s.v. שבל which quotes two views, the second of which is that שבולת שועל is oats and the first is that it is a sub-species of barley named segala. It is true that a number of rishonim adopt the second view in the Aruch, translating שבולת שועל as avina, the Latin word for oats. In that group are Rabbenu Gershom (Menachot 70b) and Rashi (Pesachim 35a and Menachot 70b) as well as many others. On the other hand, there are a large number of rishonim who do not, and who make it clear that they think that שבולת שועל is a sub-species of barley called in Latin segala, a sub-species of barley. This group of rishonim has been given considerable support by the reappearance of the Rambam’s commentary on the Mishnah Kilaim 1:1 with the Arabic correctly translated (by Rabbi Kafach) where Rambam is clear that he is of the view that שבולת שועל is not oats at all. Other rishonim in that group include Leket Yosher (OC 1:74) and Rabbenu Natan Av Hayeshiva in his commentary on the Mishnah.
Furthermore, the translation of the term שבולת שועל to oats is difficult for many technical reasons that related to the scientific description of שבולת שועל found in the Gemara. The Gemara (Pesachim 35a and Mishnah, Kilaim 1:1) states directly that whatever exactly שבולת שועל is, it is a sub-species of barley, and this is cited by many rishonim. Oats is clearly not a part of the barley family – it is a distinct species of grain, unlike segala, which is a form of barley. Segala and barley cross breed, and oats and barley do not.
Furthermore, the Mishnah in Kilaim 1:1 indicates that שבולת שועל and שיפון and barley can all cross-breed, which is simply false for oats (but true for segala). This ability to crossbreed is explicitly codified in Shulchan Aruch YD 297:14 and thus the classification of oats as שבולת שועל is inconsistent with the text of the Shulchan Aruch.
Indeed, if one simply looks at the plants and the grain themselves, it is clear that oats do not even look like barley, unlike segala (which does). The four pictures (taken from the Encyclopedia Talmudit s.v. dagan unnumbered picture pages between pages 228 and 229) provide the following four drawings (from right to left, Wheat, Barley, Oats and Segala) show that oats bear much less physical resemblance to barley that segala).
Furthermore, the Jerusalem Talmud in Challah 1:1 notes that שבולת שועל grows in a row, which is consistent with the definition of segala (also known as two-rowed barley) and not for oats.
One can say with some confidence that oats simply do not fit the botanical description found for שבולת שועל in the Mishnah, Talmud, Shulchan Aruch or later codes. This fact casts significant doubt on the correctness of the definition of many rishonim who translate שבולת שועל into Latin and call it avena or oats and this further inclines me to think that Rambam is correct and that שבולת שועל has to be a sub-species of barley. (No less a contemporary authority that Rav Sternbach in Teshuvot Vehanhagot 1:302 notes that our “oats” (which he calls “Quakers”) are not שבולת שועל, a view seconded by Yad Chanoch, 22.)
Indeed, once one realizes that שבולת שועל might not be oats but a sub-species of barley, many other rules make sense, such as the listing of mixable grains found in Yoreh Deah 324:2, which only actually make sense if שבולת שועל is a type of barley and not if it is oats.
It is of course true that the tradition found in the achronim to identify oats as the fifth grain (see Chayei Adam 1:50:3, Mishnah Berurah, Sha’ar Hatziyun 453:20 and Aruch Hashulchan 453:3) is the common one of the last centuries (and perhaps reflects the distance Jews have socially experienced from many agrarian matters for centuries). One could make a claim that for most rabbinic matters (brachot and the like) it is reasonable to follow that historical understanding of the halacha, as these are very much matters of mesorah (since me’ikar hadin, at least bedieved, one can make a mezonot on any food, say hamotzi on any grain-based bread, and perhaps even recite birkat hamazon on any grain-based bread; see Iggerot Moshe OC 4:40(1), Nishmat Avraham 1:58:2 and Yabia Omer OC 7:35. Certainly, one can bedieved recite a hamotzi and birkat hamazon on anything called bread; see Betzel Hachochmah 5:124. This would certainly be encompassed (at the least) by the rule of safek brachot lehakel given the number of rishonim and achronim who call oats one of the five grains.)
Furthermore, of course, one should never consider fermented oats not-chametz since that would be directly against Rashi and those many rishonim who agree with him, and the many achronim who note our mesorah to treat oats as one of the five grains – to be lenient about the issur of chametz on Pesach is simply a mistake.
But when it comes to the eating of oat matzah, there are three grounds to be strict, and the historical practice is to be strict, and not to use oat matzah for the mitzvah at the Seder.
First, and foremost, oats does not fit the botanical description of שבולת שועל found in the poskim. Whatever the power of a mesorah, it is at its absolute weakest when it flatly contradicts a codified halacha, as it does in this case, where the Shulchan Aruch codifies that שבולת שועל must cross-breed with barley. I realize that Rashi and other rishonim do explicitly call שבולת שועל avena or oats, but that description contradicts the botanical statements in the Gemara about שבולת שועל and when confronted with a tension between a rishon and a Talmudic text, it is the rishon’s view that is considered difficult. No one has yet harmonized the Mishna and the Gemara with the view that avena is שבולת שועל on a technical level.
Second, there always was a very strong tradition not to use oat matzah at the Seder (as noted by Shevet Halevi 9:117 and Minchat Yitzchak 9:49). While there were many reasons for this tradition, this is also an ancient mesorah.
Third, there is a unique and special bracha recited (al achilat matzah) which according to all the rishonim who disagree with the categorization of oats as שבולת שועל is simply a blessing in vain (bracha levatala) and thus a sin. Even those who defend the definition of שבולת שועל as oats (as Rav Efrati does very well in “What is Shibolet Shual,” Mesorah 13:66-71) only do so as a stricture (lechumra) and not as a leniency (lekula) – to argue that people should never stop considering oats as chametz. Using oats as the matzah for the Seder is beyond that, but represents the use of oats as one of the five grains lekula, which is factually highly problematic.)
So, what should a celiac do who simply cannot eat wheat?
First, such a person might very well be exempt from the mitzvah.
Second, there might well be a better solution. Shulchan Aruch 453:2 states that one can make matzah from a mixture of wheat and rice flour and so long as the mixture has the taste of wheat flour, one fulfils the mitzvah, because rice flour is so bland that it merely serves as filler. Both Mishnah Berurah and Aruch Hashulchan permit this in a time of need even if the amount of wheat flour is less than the minimum measure of a kezayiit (as do the vast majority of rishonim). In consultation with food experts and after a number of sample bakings, it is clear that a mixture which is 90% rice and 10% wheat flour has the wheat taste and one can fulfill the mitzvah of matzah with such matzot, and almost all celiac individuals can, in fact, digest without harm less than 10 grams of wheat (for three matzahs) or less than 3 grams (for one matzah).) Indeed, it would be a halachic improvement if someone could make and sell such matzah’s for celiacs.
Even though these matzot perhaps entail being lenient on the custom of kitniyot, it would seem to me that this is a much better halachic solution to the issue of matzah at the seder for one who suffers from celiac than to rely on the use of oat matzah, which presupposes that oats are one of the five grains, against many rishonim, and in tension with the Talmud’s and Shulchan Aruch’s own scientific description of שבולת שועל as one of the five grains, which is as a sub-species of barley.)
Of course, a person who is completely intolerant of any wheat should use oat matzah without the unique bracha, as certainly it is a plausible fulfillment of a mitzvah and without a bracha is better than nothing. But the mixture of wheat and rice is superior to that in that the Talmud endorses this solution explicitly, as do the vast majority of rishonim, the Shulchan Aruch itself, as well as most achronim. (One who wants to be strict for those rishonim (Raavad and Rashba) who rule that one cannot fulfill the mitzvah of matzah on Pesach without at least the matzah being 51% wheat on (See Shar Hatziyun 553(14) and Aruch Hashulchan 553:9 who think it is best to be strict for such a view) can either add more wheat flour to the mixture if that is medically permitted, or in addition to the rice-wheat flour, eat oat flour as well, hoping to add a deeper list of rishonim to those who would accept such a compromise and allow for a bracha.)