By Sandra Alvarez
Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is the Jewish holiday that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, and the Seleucid empire. The Temple was rededicated and with only enough oil to burn for one day, but the menorah burned miraculously for eight days. The holiday is celebrated by the symbolic lighting of the menorah, gifts, games and of course, food. What was on the table of medieval Jews? Here is a list of five foods that would have been enjoyed during Hanukkah in the Middle Ages.
It’s customary to serve food that is fried in oil or made with cheese. This tradition was said to stem from the Book of Judith. Judith served the Assyrian general, Holofernes salty cheese to make him thirsty and then gave him wine to quench his thirst and get him drunk. When he fell asleep, Judith cut off his head and brought it back in a basket, saving her city, Bethulia, from being ravaged by Holofernes’ troops. Judith’s heroism is celebrated by symbolically serving cheese and other dairy foods at Hanukkah.
Foods fried in oil recall the miracle of Hanukkah. Nothing commemorates this better than these delicious donuts, which are popular the world over but began as a Sephardic tradition. I know these from my Polish heritage as”pączki”, (Yiddish – ponchkes) a delicious, soft donut, sprinkled on top with icing sugar and filled with jam. They are also known as Bimuelos/Birmuelos/Buñuelos in Spanish speaking countries. In the Middle Ages, they were recorded in a fifteenth century recipe from Turkey that was discovered after the Sephardic Jews were forced to flee Spain and Portugal.
Why is honey such a staple during Hanukkah? Many Hanukkah foods can be found in the Even Bohan, a Rabbinical translation of Matthew, by the fourteenth century Jewish physician from Spain, Shem-Tob ben Isaac Shaprut. In it, honey is metaphorical for the sweetness of the Torah (God’s Law). Another important Jewish text, the Megillah Yehudit (The Scroll of Judith), begins with a quote from Ezekiel about the eating of a scroll which contains the words of God, which will taste “as sweet as honey in the mouth”.
Itri was made of the same dough as bread but was boiled instead of baked. It roughly translates to “vermicelli”. During the Middle Ages, it was eaten with with honey and became popular among Ashkenazi Jews. It was found in several texts that circulated in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Unfortunately, these are not the latkes that are currently found in many homes during Hanukkah. The much beloved potato pancakes are a staple for North American Jews but were a more recent addition to the Hanukkah table. Levivot, the medieval predecessors, were made of flour, mixed with boiling oil and fried in oil. Prior to the use of potato, levivot could also be made from various vegetables with flour, such as carrots or onions.
Top Image: Classic Hanukkah sufganiyot filled with strawberry jelly and powdered sugar – photo by Noam Furer / Wikimedia Commons