Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Eliezer Brodt - The Origins of Hamentashen in Jewish Literature

The Origins of Hamentashen in Jewish Literature:
A Historical-Culinary Survey

By Eliezer Brodt

I. Introduction

As Jews, most of our holidays have special foods specific to them; and behind each culinary custom, lays enveiled the reasoning behind them. Shavuot brings with it a vast array of customary dairy delicacies – in some parts of the world, cheesecake is practically obligatory – not to mention different customs in regard to how and when to eat them. Rosh Hashanah in renowned for the different fruits and vegetables eaten as physical embodiments symbolizing our tefillot; Chanukah has fried foods (no trans-fats please); whether latkes sizzling in the frying pan, or the elusive Israeli sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) seen for a month before but not to be found a minute after Chanukah’s departure, and on the fifteenth of Shevat a veritable plethora of fruits are sampled in an almost 'Pesach Seder'-like ceremony. Of course, on Purim we eat hamentashen.

Hamentashen. Those calorie-inflated, Atkins-defying, doughy tri-cornered confections filled with almost anything bake-able. The Mishpacha reports that this year in Israel alone, an astounding 24.5 million hamentashen will be sold, weighing 1225 tons, and yielding an approximate 33 million NIS in sales.[1] The question that many will be asking themselves is "where did this minhag to eat hamentashen come from?"

Recently I started researching this topic; thus far (and I hope to find more) my results are as follows.

II. Origins

The earliest source I have located so far is in a liturgical parody from the seventeenth century, where it includes a reference to eating hamentashen.[2] In an 1846 cook book called The Jewish Manual by Lady Judith Cohen Montefiore we find a recipe for “Haman fritters.”[3]

R. Barukh ha-Levi Epstein, in his Mekor Barukh, relates the following interesting anecdote which highlights the importance his grandfather placed on eating hamentashen:
One year in the beginning of the month of Adar he [my grandfather] noticed that the bakeries were not selling hamentashen. When he inquired as to why this was so, he discovered that there was a shortage of flour. He promptly went ahead and gave the biggest bakers in the city a large sum of money to enable them to buy flour to bake hamantsashen.[4]
In a Nineteenth Century Lithuanian memoir again the import of hamentashen is apparent. The author recalls that “my sister spent the day preparing the baked delicacies of Purim. Most important were the hamentashen.”[5] A. S. Sachs in his memories on shtetl life notes that his “grandma would add a Haman-tash for the kiddies” in the meshloach manot.[6] Professor Simha Assaf, in an article describing Purim, also writes that people made special foods called hamentashen.[7] Shmarya Levin recollects in his autobiography with great detail the hamentashen:
The much-loved little cakes, stuffed with nuts and poppy seed, which are called ‘Haman’s ears’ – sometimes ‘Haman’s pockets’ – had been prepared for us in vast numbers. Their shape alone was a joy. They were neither round, like rolls, nor long, like the loaf; with their triangular shape they were like nothing else that we ate during the year. The stuffing was made of poppy-seeds fried in honey, but there was not enough of it, so we used to eat the cake cagily, in such wise that with every mouthful we got at least a nibble of honeyed poppy seed.[8]
We also find hamentashen being eaten in Amsterdam[9] and Jews from Bucharia, as well, make אזני המן, similar to hamentashen. [10] לאה אזני המן מנין is a comedy listed in Avraham Yari's bibliographical listing of comedies.[11]

As we can see, the custom of eating hamentashen is widespread and common from at least the 17th century. In fact, R. Shmuel Ashkenazi pointed to some sources which may demonstrate that hamentashen were eaten even earlier. Ben Yehuda in his dictionary claims that as early as the time of the Abarbanel (1437-1508), hamentashen were consumed. The Abarbanel, discussing the food which fell from heaven, the Mon, describes these cakes as:[12]
וצפיחית הוא מאכל הקמח מבושל בשמן כצורת צפחת המים הנאכל בדבש והוא כמו הרקיקים העושים מן הבצק כדמות אזנים מבושלות בשמן ויטבלו אותם בדבש ויקראוהו אזנים
This sounds like our hamentashen although there is no reference to eating them on Purim. But R Ashkenazi pointed out to me that if this is the source, you might then be able to suggest that hamentashen was already eaten much earlier, as this piece of the Abarbanel is word for word taken from R Yosef ibn Kaspi who lived several hundred years earlier (Kaspi was born in 1298 and died in 1340)! Ben-Yehudah, in his dictionary also cites to a manuscript excerpt of a Purim comedy penned by R Yehudah Aryeh de Modena, where he writes יום שבו שלחן ערוך ומזומן בני ישראל הכו את המן יום שבו עשרת בניו תלו ואת תנוך אזניו אכלו and in the comments to this manuscript, it connects these foods to hamentashen.[13]

III. Ta'am ha-Hamentashen

Irrespective when the custom of eating hamentashen began, the question we need to now explore is why hamentashen, what connection do hamentashen have with Purim? Hayyim Schauss explains that in actuality the origins of the hamentashen are not Jewish, rather, we originally appropriated them from another culture. He explains that:
“the hamentashen are also of German origin. Originally they were called mohn-tashen, mohn meaning poppy seed and tashen meaning pockets and also signified dough that is filled with other food stuffs. The people therefore related the cake to the book of Esther and changed the mahn to Haman [due to its similarity]. In time the interpretation arose that the three cornered cakes are eaten because Haman wore a three cornered hat when he became prime minister to Ahasuerus. The three corners were also interpreted as a symbolic sign of the three patriarchs whose merit aided the Jews against Haman.”[14]
Another reason offered for eating hamentashen also deals with the meaning (more correctly a pun) of the word – hamentashen, because Haman wanted to kill us out and Hashem weakened him, preventing him from doing evil to us. Thus, the treat is called המן תש (Hamen became weakened). Eating these pastries is representative of our faith that the same result will befall all our antagonists.[15]

The next reason offered by Menucha u-Kedusha has to do with the pastry itself, more specifically, how the filling is hidden. Until the events which occurred on Purim, the Jews were accustomed to open miracles like those in their battle with Sisra, whereas the Purim miracle appeared to be through natural events – only Mordechai knew that this was a miracle. To remember this, we eat pastries that the main part – the filling – is hidden in the dough, similar to the miracle which was hidden in nature. The filling chosen was specifically zeronim (seeds – poppy seed - mahn) to remind us of Daniel having eaten only seeds (and not non-kosher food) while in captivity at Nevuchadnezar's court. Furthermore, according to this source the triangular shape also has meaning. The Talmud (Megillah 19b) records a three way argument from where to start reading the megillah. As the halakhah is to follow all three opinions and start from the beginning, we cut the pastries in triangular shape to symbolize our accordance to all three opinions. Another reason mentioned in Menucha u-Kedusha for the filling is based on the writings of R. Moshe Alsheikh, who states the Jews did not really think they were going to get completely wiped out until Mordechai finally convinced them so. The possibility arises that Mordechai was afraid to keep on sending out letters, so pastries were baked and the letters hidden therein. These pastry-letters saved the Jews; in turn we eat filled pastries. This reason is a bit interesting for itself, but what is even more interesting is that he never calls the pastries hamentashen.[16] A possibility might be kreplach, meat filled pockets boiled in soup, but the theory is unlikely as kreplach are not something special eaten exclusively for Purim – we eat it other times such as Erev Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabah.

R. Yaakov Kamenetsky offers yet another reason for eating hamentashen on Purim. As we eat the hamentashen and eating is a form of destroying the item being eaten. Therefore, in eating hamentashen, we are fulfilling the commandment (figuratively) of destroying Amalek we are eating Hamen.[17]

Yom Tov Lewinsky and Professor Dov New both suggest that the reason for eating the hamentashen is because the custom in the Middle Ages was to cut off the ears of someone who was supposed to be hung,[18] to remember that we eat pastries from which a part had been cut off. Another point mentioned both by these authors is an opinion that the filling in the pastries [this is specific to poppy seeds] is in remembrance to the 10,000 silver coins that Haman offered to contribute to Achashverosh's coffers.[19]

Aside from the general merrymaking on Purim, there is also a long tradition of written fun. Specifically, since the famous Massekhet Purim of R. Kalonymus ben Kalonymus (1286-1328), there have been many versions of these type of comedies written throughout the ages. One such was R. Avraham Mor, Kol Bo LePurim (Lemberg, 1855), which is a complete sefer all about Purim written to be humorous. Included therein is a question regarding changing the way hamentashen should be made from a triangle to make them square shape! He answered that it would be terrible to make hamentashen square. If the hamentashen are square they would have four corners which in turn would obligate the attachment of tzitzet like any clothes of four corners.[20]

One last interesting point in regard to hamentashen can be found within Prof. Elliott Horowitz's recent book-length discussion related to Purim[21] where he notes that as recent as 2002, a Saudi 'scholar' Umayna Ahamad al Jalahma claimed that Muslim blood can be used for the three cornered hamentashen.[22] Horowitz also notes that in middle of the Damascus affair in 1840, a work from 1803 was discovered which claimed that Christian blood was used in the ingredients for Purim pastries.[23] Again in 1846, Horowitz writes that “on the holiday of Purim it was claimed the Jews would annually perform a homicide in hateful memory of Haman, and if they managed to kill a Christian the Rabbi would bake the latter’s blood in triangular pastries which he would send as mishloach manot to his Christian friend.”[24] In 1938 the Jews were once again accused of murdering an adult Christian and drying his blood to be mixed into the triangular cakes eaten on Purim.[25]

Thanks to Rabbis Y. Tessler, A. Loketch and Yosaif M. Dubovick, and the two anonymous readers, for their help in locating some of the sources.

[1] Mishpacha (27 Shevat 5767), 30.
[2] שתו אכלו אזני המן - Israel Davidson, Parody in Jewish Literature (New York, 1907), pg. 193; Davidson also suggests eating twenty-seven dishes on Purim (see p. 22).
[3] Lady Judith Cohen Montefiore, The Jewish Manual (London, 1846)
[4] R. Barukh ha-Levi Epstein, Mekor Barukh (vol 1, pg. 974)
[5] Pauline Wengeroff, Rememberings: The World of a Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Bernard Dov Cooperman, trans. Henny Wenkart (University Press of Maryland, 2000), pg. 29.
[6] A. S. Sachs, Worlds That Passed (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1928), pg 229.
[7] Simha Assaf, Sefer Hamoadim, p. 29.
[8] Forward from Exile: The Autobiography of Shmarya Levin, ed. and trans. Maurice Samuel (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1967)
[9] Minhagei Amsterdam pg 149 # 12
[10] Yalkut ha-Minhagim, pg. 210
[11] Hamachazeh Ha-Ivri, p. 76 n.654.
[12] This source is also quoted in the Otzar ha-Lashon ha-Ivrit, however the editors simply describe it as a phrase from the Middle Ages (vol 1 pg 59).
[13] Parashat Beshalach, end of chap. 16; Though I was unable to pin-point the comedy, it might be the one called La Reina Esther; see Mark R. Cohen, The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena's Life of Judah (Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 235.
[14] Hayyim Schauss, The Jewish Festivals (Random House, 1938; Hebrew, 1933), pg. 270. The source for the first reason can be found in Judah David Eisenstein, Otzar Dinim u-Minhagim (New York, 1917), p. 336, and for the last reason in Yitzhak Lifshitz, Sefer Ma’atamim (Warsaw, 1889), p. 86.
[15] Avraham Eliezer Hershkowitz, Otzar Kol Minhaghei Yeshrun (St. Louis, 1918), p. 131.
[16] R. Yisrael Isserl of Ponevezh writes in his Sefer Menucha u-Kedusha (Vilna, 1864), pg 271-272.
[17] Yaakov Michoel Jacobs, Bemechitzas Rabbeinu: Hagaon Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, zt"l (Feldheim, 2005), p. 142.
[18] Yom Tov Lewinsky, Sefer Hamoadim (153-154); Dov New, Machanaim # 43; See also the forthcoming post at the Seforim blog about Hanging Haman.
[19] Ibid.
[20] R. Avraham Mor, Kol Bo LePurim (Lemberg, 1855), pg. 6.
[21] Elliott Horowitz, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton University Press, 2006)
[22] Ibid, pg. 9.
[23] Ibid, pg. 218.
[24] Ibid, pg. 219.
[25] Ibid, pg. 228.

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