A Post-Pesach Moroccan Celebration Of Freedom, Faith, And Fortune
By Chandrea Serebro
Sephardi Jews have an incredibly rich heritage, liberally peppered with all things spicy and spiritual. And Pesach is no exception, where you’ll find a Moroccan tradition to lovingly prepare the first chometz that is eaten after the end of Pesach into traditional breads and sweet cakes, rather than just waiting in line to get the first piece of pizza you can get your hands on. It’s a night of feasting filled with all things anti-banting: baked goods as far as the eye can see, honey and sweets, alongside the more traditionally symbolic foods of fish and dates, all to give you one last reminder of where we have come from and where, hopefully, we are going.
Celebrated the day after Pesach, Mimouna is a happy, festive affair, which started no one knows exactly where or when, but which came into practice around the 18th century. It’s a celebration of the renewal of spring, freedom, community values, togetherness, and friendship – and a demonstration of great hospitality. On the eve of Mimouna, family members, friends, and cousins visit each other’s homes, going from house to house, table hopping, enjoying the spread, a lechaim, and a laugh or two. The festival’s name hints at tales of long ago wisdom and symbolic whisperings of faith, protection, and belief. Some say it marks the birth (or death) of the Rambam’s father (Maimon ben Yoseph). Others say the festival’s name comes from the Arabic word, ma’amoun (literally “protected by G-d”), for wealth and good fortune. Some say it’s symbolic of general prosperity, even luck, as Pesach is a time to pray for produce and abundance in the fields, since it is the Rosh Hashanah (New Year) for crops. Some connect Mimouna with the word emunah (belief) in Israel’s past and ultimate redemption.
The central event of Mimouna is the baking of the first leavened bread, the first chometz, after Pesach. The yeast of the bread was considered a symbol of Israel, and so great care was taken to ensure it rose properly. While the dough was being prepared, songs were sung in hopes that the rising bread would be a good omen. Some communities kept and poured wine from the cup of Eliyahu over the yeast. In any event, it is by nature a celebration heavy with symbolism and deeper meanings, and the table is laden with foods and items pointing to all these things too – luck, fertility, abundance, peace, sweetness, and prosperity. The main food eaten on Mimouna is mofletta, a flat pancake-type bread. Fig leaves, live fish, eggs, stalks of wheat, and honey might also be included. Nowadays, Mimouna is probably best celebrated in Israel, where the largest Sephardi Jewish community predominantly from Morocco and Turkey live. Families gather at picnics in parks and on beaches to eat, drink, sing, and dance. There is also a custom that courting and matchmaking are performed on Mimouna, and so after eating, many women and men start looking for their ideal mate. There is also another custom that parents of engaged couples invite them over to eat mofletta and grilled fish, for fertility.
In Johannesburg, it’s a well-enjoyed event by many members of the Sephardi Jewish community, some of whom originate directly from Morocco. Avi Cohen, who celebrates Mimouna with his family and community every year, explains how in Morocco, the families in the village would hop from house-to-house, wishing each other the traditional blessing of a successful and profitable year ahead, dressed in white kaftans, symbolising the purity of the new year, with the sweetness echoed in the honey on all the tables. It’s a festival of plenty, because, interwoven into our lives so deeply are the twin ideas of tradition, having been passed from father-to-son for generations, and segula, the right setting and timing for Hashem to grant us our every prayer. It’s a night of brocha – the leaders and the elders and the heads of the family dispense brochas all around, and afterwards the real party begins with food and music, dancing, singing, and general happiness and joy – going into life as free men, with Hashem on our side, with the power of hope and faith, and the blessings in our hands for parnossah (livelihood) and hatzlocha (success). It is a party that carries on well into the morning, where yet another meal is served for breakfast, and when after the dust has settled, we cling to the hope that the blessings and wishes from the previous day will flow forward into our lives by sheer power of our belief.
Ilan Perez also has fond memories of celebrating Mimouna in Yeoville. He remembers Rabbi Aviyhu Levy and his wife Shoshanna, stalwarts of the Moroccan Jewish community in Johannesburg, and how they would prepare the customary feast. The festivities would start with the mofletta, which he describes as “very thin pancake style wraps”, topped with honey and sweet fillings, and which for him holds deep resonance with the festival and with Pesach and the freedom we find. “Instead of rushing into having thick, heavy, doughy, puffy, risen bread straight after Peseach (which may show how much we missed chometz and imply, chas v’shalom, that Pesach was a burden), on Mimouna we have thin chometz, more similar looking to matzah than to bread. This is, for me, a meaningful transition between Pesach, the chometz-free life, and chometz.” He reminisced about how “guests came to visit all the time, and not only Sephardim, Ashkenazim would come too,” joining in on this customary festive meal. Together, they would spend the night singing songs and sharing words of Torah, while enjoying the newfound freedom and revelry.
In Israel today, many people practice Mimouna too, whether it’s in a small apartment, where things are more intimate and personal, or among families throwing banquet-style parties for their entire neighbourhood. The prime minister and members of parliament and political parties have been known to show up, the perfect ground, explains Avi with a wink, for some Jewish-style public relations. And the atmosphere is right for it – people are relaxed, hopeful, looking positively ahead, embracing tomorrow and all that it will bring.
(Sources: myjewishlearning; wikipedia, and angelfire)