Why do Ashkenazic Jews Eat Hamentashen on Purim? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 8, Issue No. 5, March 2014


Question from Martin Koenig: What is the origin of eating hamentashen on Purim?

Responsum: Throughout the generations, Jews in different lands ate many different foods on Purim (see Ben Ezra for many examples). In this responsum, I shall give the history of three customs that are connected to today’s custom of eating hamentashen on Purim.

I) The custom of eating zeronim [seeds] on Purim

The first hint of this custom is a piyyut or liturgical poem whichopposes the custom. It was written by an otherwise unknown poet named Rabbi Menahem b”r Aharon in a poem found in Mahzor Vitry (France, early 12th century, ed. Horowitz, p. 584; see Leshem, Bamberger, Davidson, and Zunz). The poem begins Leil shikorim hu zeh halayla, “This night is a night for drunks”, which seems to indicate that it is a parody for Purim. The poem says:

Cursed is the man who will eat lentils
On the nights of Purim and on festivals and new moons…
Cursed is the man who will eat chopped beans

In other words, the poet was aware of a custom of eating lentils and beans on Purim and other festivals and opposed it.

The custom of eating zeronim [seeds] on Purim is first mentioned in the Kol Bo, and in its “sister” work Orhot Hayyim by Rabbi Aaron Hacohen of Lunel, which were written in Provence ca. 1300. The following is a quote from the Kol Bo (Laws of Purim, parag. 45, ed. Avraham, Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1990, col. 329), with one addition fromOrhot Hayyim (Laws of Purim, parag. 34, ed.Florence, 1750, fol. 120d):

And it is the custom to eat zeronim on that night [after the Fast of Esther] in memory of the zeronim that Daniel and his friends ate in the house of the King, as it is written (Daniel 1:16): “And he gave them zeronim“.

The passage from Orhot Hayyim was copied by Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Bet Yosef (to Tur Orah Hayyim 695 s.v. katuv bo”h), while Rabbi Moshe Isserles codified this custom in his glosses toShulhan Arukh OH 695:2:

Some say that one should eat a food made out of zeronim on Purim in memory of the zeronim which Daniel and his friends ate in Babylon (Kol Bo).

What are zeronim? Avraham ibn Shoshan defines the word in his dictionary (Hamilon Hehadash, Jerusalem, 1966, Vol. 1, p. 358): “A seed of an edible plant which is used for planting or is eaten raw or cooked” and he then refers to the verse in Daniel quoted above (Also see Ben-Yehudah, pp. 1407-1408; Hartom and Da’at Mikra to Daniel 1:16; Bamberger; Leshem.). Rashi to Daniel says that zeronim are from seeds, a type ofkitniyot or lentils, while Sa’adiah Gaon to Daniel says that they are beans, peas, lentils and the like.

The halakhic sources quoted above beg the question: Why eatzeronim on Purim which occurred in Persia in memory of Daniel and his friends who ate zeronim in Babylon?! Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (Bohemia, Italy, Poland, 1530-1612) replied in his Levush (toOH 695:2) that, according to the tractate of Megillah 15a, Daniel is actually Hatakh who is mentioned in the Book of Esther (4:5 ff.) as the messenger who shuttled messages back and forth between Esther and Mordechai.

Rabbi David Shlomo Eibeshitz (Levushei Serad to OH 695:2), Rabbi Hizkiyah de Silva (Pri Hadash, ibid.), Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein (Arukh Hashukhan to OH 695:9), and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen (Mishnah Berurah to OH 695, subparagraph 12) all say that Esther also ate zeronim, according to a midrash found inMegillah 13a. Indeed, Rabbi Yohanan says in that passage that Esther ate zeronim — as did Daniel. By the time this custom was discussed by Rabbi Avraham Eliezer Hirshowitz in 1917, he has reversed the order – the zeronim, which he defines as beans orkitniyot, are eaten in memory of Esther and also of Daniel and his friends (cf. Schauss and Goodman).

We have seen thus far that there is a custom to eat zeronim on Purim either in memory of Daniel and his friends or in memory of Esther who also ate zeronim.

Rabbi Yosef Yuzpe Hahn (Frankfurt am Main, 1570-1637) related to our topic in his Yosef Ometz (Frankfurt am Main, 1928, p. 240, parag. 1099):

The obligation to eat a feast on Purim is specifically in the daytime… and [it is good] to add to the meal on Purim eve between the Megillah [at night] and the Megillah [in the morning]. Indeed, it is good to eat types of kitniyot [legumes] so that it does not seem that it is the main feast. It is also in memory of the zeronim of Daniel, and in the Kol Bo he wrote that this is the custom.

This passage adds two new points: that zeronim and kitniyot are synonyms and a halakhic reason for the custom – we eat legumes at the meal on Purim eve in order to emphasize that it is not the main meal on Purim. Regarding the second point, it may be based on the fact that legumes were considered simple food eaten by the poor and also a food eaten by mourners (See my responsum regarding kitniyot on Pesah in Responsa of the Va’ad Halakhah 3 [5748-5749], p. 46 and notes 10-13; Leshem, p. 314).

Rabbi Yitzhak Lipitz gives three reasons for eating zeronim on Purim. We shall only mention the first, since it connects this custom to hamentashen: We eat sesame seeds and other types of seeds on Purim because they are called “mohn” in Yiddish, which contains the same letters as Haman (h.m.n.)

Doniach, Gaster and Goodman add that on Purim the Jews of Eastern Europe used to eat salted beans boiled in their jackets called bub, bab, babbelech or nahit [chickpeas].

II) Kreplech

As Mordechai Kosover has shown, the word kreplech comes from the French word “crepes”. Kreplech were very popular among Ashkenazic Jews from ca. 1225 until today. They were cooked, baked or fried; filled with meat or cheese; and eaten with goose fat, sour cream, butter or sour milk. They are frequently mentioned in halakhic discussions as to whether what the Talmud calls “pat haba’ah b’kisnin” should be treated as bread or cake (Berakhot42a and Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 168:6-7). They are mentioned by Rabbi Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna (ca. 1180-1250), Rabbi Moshe Parnass of Rotenberg (ca. 1300), Rabbi Alexander Zusslein Hacohen (d. 1349), Piskei Tosafot, and Rabbis Mordechai Yaffe and Yosef Yuzpe Hahn (mentioned above).

One of the foods mentioned by various rabbis was “Purimkreplech“. This custom is first mentioned by Rabbi Yozl Hochshtadt who says that his teacher Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein (d. 1460) did not want to eat kreplech at the Purim feast on Purim eve (Leket Yosher, ed. Freimann, Vol. I,Berlin, 1903, p. 34).

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the Shelah (Prague, Israel, ca. 1565-1630), says that the dough was kneaded with honey and spices and filled with fruits or jam (Shenei Luhot Haberit, part I, Sha’ar Ha’otiot, fol. 65a).

Similar recipes are mentioned by Emek Berakhah and Or Hadash(quoted by Kosover, p. 75, note 197).

Rabbi Yoel Sirkes (Poland, 1561-1640, Bah to Tur Orah Hayyim168) says that “the dough of the Purim kreplech is kneaded in honey and spices or in goose fat and then it is made into pockets filled with nuts and raisins. (Cf. his son-in-law Rabbi David Halevi in the Taz to the Shulhan Arukh, ibid., 168:3.)

Rabbi David Oppenheim (Bohemia, 1664-1736) mentions “kreplech that are made on Purim” in his Hanhagot Adam (Pollack, p. 276, note 52).

Rabbi Yehudah Askenazi of Ticktin (ca. 1742) also mentions “kreplech shel Purim” (Ba’er Heiteiv to Orah Hayyim 168, subparag. 11).

Moritz Steinschneider suggested in 1903 (p. 470) that the Purim custom of kreplech was borrowed from Shrove Tuesday which occurs approximately 7 weeks before Easter and one day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. On Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Tuesday, Pancake Day or Mardi Gras [=Fat Tuesday], many Christians eat pancakes made of rich foods such as eggs, milk and sugar before the 40 days of fasting during Lent. It is true that Purim occurs shortly after Shrove Tuesday, but since Jews ate kreplech all year long they did not need to borrow Purimkreplech from Shrove Tuesday. Furthermore, pancakes made with eggs, milk and sugar are not the same as kreplech stuffed with jam and fruits as described above.

There was a widespread custom in Eastern Europe to eat kreplech filled with chopped meat, on Purim, Yom Kippur eve, and Hoshanah Rabbah. There is a popular explanation for this custom. The common denominator of the three days mentioned is that there is beating – shlogen in Yiddish — on all three holidays. On Purim we beat Haman by making noise; on Yom Kippur we beat our breasts when we recite the Viduy or confession of sins; and on Hoshanah Rabbah we beat the aravot or willows on the ground. The Jews of Eastern Europe even found a verse which hints at all three customs — “hakeh takeh” – “you shall indeed beat” (Deut. 13:16). The words “hakeh takeh“– h,k,h,t,k,h —  are a notarikon or abbreviation of Haman, Kippur, Hoshanah Rabbah, TokhluKreplech Harbeh [=eat many kreplech] ! (Druyanov, Doniach, Schauss, Kosover, p. 77, Ben Ezra, Goodman).

Another farfetched, homiletic explanation for eating kreplech on these three holidays is that all three of these days are not a full Yom Tov since it is permissible to do labors which are forbidden on Shabbat and holidays and to engage in commerce. Therefore, these holidays are hidden rather than revealed. Since Rabbi Yehudah ben Beteira said that there is no joy without meat on Yom Tov (Pesahim 109a), we do eat meat on these three days, but it is hidden in dough! (Sperling)

Doniach adds that kreplech are also called Kreppchen or Homenohren [Haman’s ears] in German or orecchi d’Aman [ears of Haman] in Italian. In other words, the term oznei haman mentioned below also applied to kreplech and not just to hamentashen.

III) The custom of eating Hamentashen or Oznei Haman[Haman’s Ears] on Purim

It is pretty clear from the previous section that hamentashen are simply a special type of kreplech eaten on Purim.

Even so, there are scholars who looked for hints of hamentashenin older, Sefardic texts. N.S. Doniach suggested in 1933 that “this mixture [of hamentashen] is first mentioned by Abraham ibn Ezra (1092-1167) as a sweet-meat for Purim”. He refers in a note to ibn Ezra’s piyyut entitled “Kor’ei megillah heim yeranenu“, which was published in Mahzor Vitry (ed. Horowitz, p. 219). That piyyut states: “Also in your palate place, honey and manna, the word of Haman”.

Doniach thought that ibn Ezra was referring to hamentashen, but Yisrael Levine in his commentary to his critical edition of ibn Ezra’s poems thinks that these are metaphors to remember and tell the story of Haman (Levine). In any case, even if ibn Ezra was referring to a sweet food in memory of Haman, there is absolutely no proof that the food was hamentashen.

Similarly, in his discussion of Ozen Haman (p. 131), Eliezer Ben Yehudah quotes Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel’s commentary to Exodus 16:31. The Abarbanel (Spain, Portugal, Italy 1437-1508) says that “tzapihit” mentioned in the verse about manna is “a food made from flour cooked in oil, in the shape of a tzapahat [a pitcher] of water eaten with honey. And it is like the rekikim [cakes] made from dough in the shape of ears cooked in oil, and they are dipped in honey, and they are called ears. So is the tzapihit bidvash [in this verse]” (ed. Avishai Schotland, Jerusalem, 1997, pp. 245-246). This interpretation was taken from Metzaref Lakesef by Rabbi Yosef ibn Kaspi to Exodus 16:31 (1279-1340). Indeed, these two rabbis are describing a food that is similar to hamentashen, but that food had no connection to Purim whatsoever.

It seems quite clear that the word hamentashen is a corruption of or a wordplay on mohn taschen = poppy-seed pouches/pockets (Eisenstein, Schauss, Gaster, Lewinski, Goodman).

The Hebrew name, Oznei Haman, Haman’s ears is based on the Italian name, Orecchi d’Aman (see below). Mendele Moikher Seforim in his Bayamim Hahem called this food in HebrewLahmaniyah Meshuleshet, a triangular roll, but that name did not catch on (Lewinski).

Lewinski adds that they were filled with meat or cheese or prunes and were also eaten by non-Jews in Germany and Austria. They were called Taschkerl or Taschen or Krepchen. In Western Germany, they called them Hamens Ohren, Haman’s ears, and in Italy they called them Orecchi d’Aman, Haman’s ears.

Rabbi Mordechai Shmuel Girondi (d. 1852), an Italian rabbi, wrote in a Hebrew poem (quoted by Steinschneider, p. 177, from a manuscript):

In a time of joy, the days of Purim…
And I will request from you …
A little butter, a little bread and hallot,
cakes of Haman’s ears and I will feast.

A homiletic explanation says that hamentash is a hint that “haman tash kokho“, his strength ebbed to harm the Jewish people (Hirshowitz in the name of Ma’aseh Alfass).

Yitzhak Lipitz says that the reason we eat a three-cornered cake called hamentash is because it says in the midrash that when Haman saw the three forefathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob –tash kocho, he strength ebbed (cf Schauss and Lewinski); and it says vekhol karnei reshaim agadea” – “and all the horns [or: corners] of the wicked I shall uproot” (Psalms 75:11), this is Haman, “teromamna karnot tzaddik” – “the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up”, this is Mordechai (cf. Eisenstein).

Rabbi J.D. Eisenstein, writing in 1917, says that we eat a three-cornered cake filled with sesame called hamentash, “which is like the hat of Napoleon, and they think that Haman wore a hat like this as the Prime Minister in the Kingdom of Ahashverosh” (cf. Schauss, Lewinski and Goodman). Needless to say, this explanation stems from the three-cornered hats worn at the time of those who gave the explanation (For a painting of a rabbi wearing such a hat in Amsterdam in 1813, see Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 6, col. 218).

The poet Rabbi Immanuel of Rome(ca. 1260-1336) relates that there was a widespread legend that the Jews cut off Haman’s ears as an act of revenge. This legend was based on an Italian law that they would cut off the ear of a thief or of a criminal. Ben Ezra suggests that this is the origin of eating Purim cakes in the shape of Haman’s ears (Ben Ezra, p. 177).

Regarding the Italian custom, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Modena(1571-1648) wrote in a Purim play:

The day that the table is set and ready
The children ofIsraelbeat Haman
The day that his ten sons were hung
And that his earlobes were eaten.

Yitzhak Shmuel Reggio explains: “this is a hint at the sweets which they make in our lands on Purim and they call them Oznei Haman[the ears of Haman]”. (Reggio, Igrot Yashar, No. 28, as quoted by Ben Yehudah, p. 131; Ben Ezra, p. 177; and Dov Yarden, p. 149).

Lewinski suggests that they cut off Haman’s ears before he was hanged, just as the Emperor of Germany cut off the ears of Vincent Fettmilch, the self-styled “new Haman”, in Frankfurt am Main in 1616 before they hung him. In other words, Oznei Haman are in memory of Haman’s ears.

Lewinski also suggests that we borrowed the custom of hamentashen from our Christian neighbors. They ate filled cakes called Auricula Judae, Judas Ears, on Sad Friday (Good Friday?) in memory of the Judas Ears mushrooms which sprouted on the tree on which he hung himself.  In Lewinski’s opinion, Judas Ears became Haman’s Ears.

IV) Summary

After examining all of these facts and theories, it appears that the Ashkenazic custom of eating hamentashen on Purim is based on three customs:

a. Since ca. 1300 there has been a custom to eat zeronim or seeds on Purim. This may be the reason for baking hamentashenwith poppy seeds.

b. Since ca. 1225 Ashkenazic Jews have eaten kreplechthroughout the year and Purim kreplech are mentioned beginning in ca. 1450. The ingredients of Purim kreplech sound very much like the ingredients for hamentashen.

c. Finally, in German and Yiddish speaking countries they began to call Purim kreplech hamantashen, which is a play on words with mohntaschen – poppy seed pockets.

May Jews throughout the world rejoice on Purim, whether they eat seeds or kreplech or hamentashen – or all three!

David Golinkin
Jerusalem
7 Adar II 5774


Bibliography

Ariel, Z., Sefer Hahag Vehamoed, second edition, Tel Aviv, 1970, p. 220

Bamberger, Jeschurun 3 (1916), pp. 549-550 (German)

Ben Ezra, Akiva, Minhagei Hagim, Tel Aviv, 1963, pp. 176-178

Ben Yehudah, Eliezer, Milon Halashon Ha’ivrit Hayeshanah Vehahadashah, Jerusalem and New York, 1959, p. 131, s.v. Ozenand pp. 1407-1408, s.v. Zeron

Cooper, John, Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food,Northvale,New Jersey andLondon, 1993, pp. 193-194

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Lewinski, Yom Tov, Sefer Hamo’adim, Vol. 6, Tel Aviv, 1956, pp. 153-154, 319 (cf. Lewinski, Yom Tov, Eileh Mo’adei Yisrael, Tel Aviv, 1971, p. 142)

Leshem, Haim, Shabbat Umo’adei Yisrael, second edition, Volume 1, Tel Aviv, 1969, pp. 313-315

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Yarden, Dov, Leshonenu 17 (5711), pp. 148-149

Zunz, Leopold, Literaturgeschichte der Synagogalen Poesie, Berlin, 1865, p. 485

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