Why We Eat Them and What They Represent
By Ilan Preskovsky
For Jews, food is an intrinsic and inextricable part of our culture and our religion. It is with food that we celebrate major life-cycle events, from birth to death, and all our festivals are marked by large meals and certain, usually symbolic dishes unique to each. Even Yom Kippur, our most holy of holy days, is marked by food: though in this case, the lack of it. Culturally, too, even if most “Jewish food” is borrowed cuisine from whichever region we happened to find ourselves in during our centuries of galut, we identify strongly – and are strongly identified – with these dishes.
The development of different kinds of Jewish foods, how they vary between Askenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrachi Jews, and how they have infiltrated the wider culture is a lengthy discussion all of its own (and I have written an overview of it in a previous issue), but what about the various foods that are associated with the different festivals (the chagim)? The origins of some of these are, of course, rather obvious (matzah on Pesach being a prime example), but others are perhaps less so. And even those whose origins are clear often offer multiple levels of symbolic significance.
Starting chronologically with the first of the pilgrimage festivals (shalosh regalim), Pesach may well be the Jewish Holiday most associated with food. In part, of course, it’s about what we can’t eat as much as what we can, as we refrain from eating leavened, grain-based foods (chametz) throughout all eight days of Pesach and we are taught that eating chametz on Pesach is a transgression on the same level as eating on Yom Kippur.
What’s particularly beautiful about Pesach, though, is not simply a yearly retelling of the origin of the Jewish people, but that the story is told in such a way that its various non-sequiturs – the Haggadah flaunts just about every traditional rule of storytelling imaginable – all but demand a stream of questions, while the rich symbolism inherent in virtually every stage of the Haggadah calls for constant explanations. Best of all, the nature, level, and depth of those questions and explanations evolve as a person grows older and, hopefully, wiser. It is the quintessential representation of the Jewish attachment to education and wisdom.
The numerous items of food that accompany every stage of our retelling of the Jewish people’s exodus from slavery in Egypt are there to provide a physical dimension to the story that makes it easier to properly relate to something that happened thousands of years in the past (to tell it as if “we were there”, in other words), but they are also there specifically to foster an environment of constant questioning, debate, and symbolic, anti-lateral thinking – especially from the children, yes, but really for everyone sitting down at the seder table.
The injunction against chametz during Pesach is clearly written in the Torah (Shemot 12:19, 12:20 among others). The commandment to eat matzah, a Torah mitzvah at least on the first night of Pesach, is, in its most basic explanation, a way to connect ourselves to the experience of leaving ancient Egypt in a hurry.
The basis for eating things like bitter herbs (maror) or charoset during the seder is much more clearly laid out than the symbolic foods that have become associated with the other festivals. The symbolic meanings of these foods are most clearly extrapolated, at least on a basic level, during the seder itself, but it really does perfectly set the stage for how inextricably linked what we eat and drink is with what we mark as the most important days on our calendars.
In sharp contrast to Pesach and despite it representing the Revelation at Sinai and our acceptance of the Torah, Shavuot is the “major festival” with the least amount of symbolism (and mitzvos) associated with it: which is, no doubt, why it often feels like Shavuot is almost the forgotten chag – certainly in terms of the public consciousness, but even for those of us who actually observe it! It’s an accepted truth that this is because the giving of the Torah doesn’t, in fact, need outward signs to declare its importance, but that still hasn’t stopped it from receding far more than it should in the Jewish consciousness. Without the stirring blowing of the shofar, the intricacy of the seder, or the novelty of the sukkah, Shavuot often feels like a two-day Shabbos that sometimes occurs in the middle of the week and is generally only really known and/or kept by “observant” Jews.
This is particularly ironic not just because of what Shavuot still represents, but because in the time when the first and second Temples still stood, it was a huge deal. Shavuot was the annual harvest festival that celebrated the apex of the agricultural year when wheat would be ready to be harvested and, at the same time, also saw the start of farmers throughout Israel and beyond bringing the bikkurim (the first fruits harvested that year) to the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem accompanied by lavish, colourful, and ornate parades.
Take away this heavily food-centric aspect of Shavuot and it became a completely different Festival; arguably the one that has been altered most by the destruction of the Batei Mikdash. It is nowadays seen almost entirely as the chag that celebrates the giving of the Torah, but a major part of Shavuot has been lost over the past 2000 years.
Over the years, certain customs have become associated with Shavuot, including reading the book of Ruth, staying up all night learning Torah (tikkun leil), and eating dairy meals – among other more esoteric reasons, the latter to commemorate how, after receiving the laws of Kashrut, the Israelites were forced to only eat dairy and pareve products until they could kasher their utensils and slaughter their livestock according to halacha. Milk dishes of all sorts are eaten on Shavuot, but along with your generic pasta or pizza dishes, different Jewish communities eat traditional dairy dishes associated with the host counties in which they live or once lived.
Cheesecake and cheese blintzes are favourites of Ashkenazi Jews, but it’s more varied among Sephardim and Mizrachim, with dishes including cheese sambusak for Syrian Jews, kahee for Iraqi Jews, and the seven-layered cake known as siete cielos for Moroccan Jews. Interestingly, Yemenite Jews don’t have the custom to eat a milchik meal at all on Shavuot.
The one major connection that we have today to the agricultural aspects of Shavuot, though, is the tradition of having children bring parcels of fruit to shul on the first day of the chag to represent the bikkurim, whereafter these parcels are typically given to charity. It obviously doesn’t have halachic weight behind it and it is a remembrance of a practice rather than the practice itself, but it’s a beautiful practice that is an obvious highlight of the entire festival.
The High Holidays, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah
The month of Tishrei is, of course, the spiritual highlight of the year with no less than four distinct major festivals spread out throughout the month and with the holiest day of the year right in the middle of it. Th way these chagim relate to food, though, is fairly varied. Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah are celebrated with lavish meals, but there are no particular dishes associated with these festivals. Although Yom Kippur is a day when we abstain from food, our Sages teach that one who has a festive meal just before the onset of the holiday is considered to have fasted two days instead of just one.
On Rosh Hashanah it is customary to eat certain foods, known as simanim (signs), during the evening meals as a “sign” for a positive result on the Day of Judgement and for a good year ahead. The specifics of this custom vary quite considerably between different communities and the extent and manner to which it is observed does vary from family to family. Some may eat all the simanim listed in machzorim at the start of the meal, some include the various foods in the meal itself, some do a mixture of both. Many families are particular to eat all of the simanim that are traditionally listed, while others only include a select few.
Incredibly, the custom of eating these simanim on Rosh Hashanah has its origins in the Talmud itself. In both Horayot 12a and Keritot 6a, our great sage Abaye states that it is meritorious to have on your table five items of food to help bring about a positive heavenly judgement. These include beats, gourds, leeks, dates, and peas (though the last one is disputed and could also mean sesame seeds, clover, or the herb fenugreek).
Needless to say, this custom mushroomed over the years to include numerous foods added to the original five and also a short prayer to go with each of the simanim. Some of the added simanim include carrots, a ram’s head and/or fish head, pomegranates, and various sweet foods – the most widely known siman of them all: eating apples dipped in honey, which is actually of specifically Ashkenazi origin.
It would take ages to get into the symbolism of each siman, not least because there are numerous explanations for each of them – fortunately, the actual tefilot spell out the most widely accepted symbolic significance attached to each item of food. Some of the more notable themes are for a sweet and happy year, increased merits, the utter destruction of our enemies (there’s a whole lot about our enemies getting well and truly thumped), procreation, and being “as a head, not a tail”.
My personal favourite (and this is something I only discovered when researching this article) is the “custom” to take a piece of celery and a raisin and, before eating them, to ask G-d for a “raise in salary”: a pun of such exquisite awfulness/genius that it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t been universally adopted, not least by my own family.
Because of its proximity to the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and, with it, a certain Christian holiday, Chanukah has taken on a prominence in popular culture that has, astonishingly, eclipsed every other Jewish holiday in the minds of not only those outside the Jewish world but, sadly, even for many within it. It’s an odd, but not completely unexpected phenomenon, with one of the results being that the customary dish associated with the it has become one of the most instantly identifiable Jewish foods around: the humble potato latke.
And fair enough, potato latkes are delicious and can be served as a savoury dish with cream cheese and smoked salmon or as a desert with cinnamon and sugar or apple sauce. The only problem is that this presents a very Ashkenazi-centric, not to mention American, view of Judaism that doesn’t acknowledge exactly why many Jews eat potato latkes on Chanukah or that there are a number of foods that can be and are substituted in its place – with latkes arguably coming in behind sufganiyot (fried jam doughnuts) in terms of being the definitive Chanukah treat in modern Israel.
And yet, latkes do actually have a fairly bizarre history all of their own. The simple reason we eat doughnuts, potato latkes, and other fried foods on Chanukah is to remember the miracle after the Temple was ransacked by Greek-Syrian forces and a single day’s worth of oil used to light the menorah ended up miraculously lasting for eight days, but that still doesn’t quite encapsulate the latke’s evolution and why it specifically has become associated so strongly with Chanukah.
That potato latkes are mostly an Ashkenazi dish is probably not that surprising, but what is less expected is that its origins are both much older and much more recent than one might expect. Potato latkes, as we know them, probably only came into existence in the 19th Century when potatoes became more widely available in Europe and they’re apparently an adaptation of a similar Italian dish from that period. Potato latkes, though, are actually only the latest (last?) iteration of the fried cheese pancakes that have been associated with Chanukah for quite possibly as far back as during the times of the Maccabees themselves. The association of dairy products with Chanukah is a result of the connection to a story about the Jewish heroine, Yehudis, who assassinated the Assyrian general Holofernes in his sleep after plying him with salty cheese to make him thirsty and then giving him plenty of wine to drink to make him pass out, so she could take his life.
When it comes to Purim, there’s really no mystery at all as to where the various mitzvot and customs of the day come from as the megillah itself explicitly talks about them, including the specific mitzvot of giving gifts to the poor (Matanot La’Evyonim) and to friends (Mishloach Manot). Just about everything you need to know about Purim can be found in the text itself – including the significant part that food plays in the proceedings.
There is, however, a particular custom – or, more accurately, a customary food – that is greatly associated with Purim that doesn’t have any explicit roots in the classic literature: the hamentaschen (technically, hamentasch, but over the years hamentaschen has become both the plural and singular forms of the word). These triangular delicacies that are, as well all know, correctly made into a doughy pastry with mohn in the middle, but can also, I suppose, be made as a biscuit and with chocolate, custard, cheese, and various other sweet fillings that don’t even necessarily begin with a ‘c’. Apparently, there are even savoury versions of hamentaschen, but the less said about them, the better.
There have been a number of reasons suggested for why we eat hamentaschen on Purim – though, once again, its origins are quite specifically Ashkenazic and can be traced as far back as medieval times, though 18th Century Germany seems more likely. Hamentashchen is a combination of the Yiddish words for poppy seeds (mohn) and pockets (taschen), and the simplest reason for why they have become associated with Purim is that the “hamen” part of “hamentaschen” can also be a play on the villain of the Purim story, Haman, and “tasch” in Hebrew means “weaken”.
Their triangular shape, meanwhile, is generally seen to be either a reference to the hat that Haman wore or to the shape of his ears (in Israel, hamentaschen are referred to as oznei haman – the ears of Haman). More esoterically, there is also the idea that the three sides of the hamentaschen refer to the three Patriarchs in whose merit Haman was so fully beaten. Also, because the sweet mohn is hidden inside the somewhat more savoury dough (again, if you make them correctly!), it represents how Hashem’s hand was hidden in the story.
It is impossible to overstate the power of symbolism, and the way that Judaism, through both custom and law, integrates symbols into the very food that we eat to mark our many festivals is a particularly beautiful reflection of that.