Friday, December 11, 2009

Sufganiyot (doughnuts) on Chanuka

Where does the minhag (custom) of eating Sufganiot come from on Chanuka?

Let’s ask another question first:

Why don’t we celebrate the miracle of Chanuka with a seudat mitzvah, that is a sit down festive meal in honour of the miracle, where we eat pat lechem (bread)?
Unless you have learnt Mesechet Shabbat or read Sefer Chashmonayim you might still have the somewhat childish notion, taught in Cheder and school that Chanuka is a celebration of the victory of the Jews over the Greeks. Rav Ari Kahn explains that in actual fact Chanuka commemorates the war between those Jews loyal to Hashem and His Torah and the Mityavnim (Hellenist Jews) who had adopted Greek cultural practices.

This dirty secret that Chaza”l (our wise sages) only hinted at in references to the story of Chanuka means that we are actually commemorating a bloody and painful civil war where father was against son, brother was against brother and whole families were split apart.
According to most opinions, the halacha is that there is no mitzvah to eat a seudah with bread on Chanuka because Chaza”l did not deem it appropriate to celebrate the deaths of Jews, despite their evil ideology. Indeed, according to Sefer Chashmonayim, the Chashmonayim themselves were in no mood to celebrate after their victory but there is evidence that they did eat different kinds of fried cakes to symbolise their victory over Hellenism and the reuniting of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel).

In Sefer Moadim BaHalacha by Rav Shlomo Zevin, he writes that there are many clues to this civil war. He points out that if you want to know who really “treifed” up the Beit HaMikdash then the answer lies within the laws of tuma and tahara (ritual purity). Halacha tells us that Goyim could not have done this because Goyim do not conduct tuma. However Jews can! Sefer Chashmonayim tells us that the Mizbeiyach (the alter where the korbanot were offered) had to be broken up as it had become tamei (ritually impure). Likewise the oil (used to light the Menorah) and the flour (used to make the Lechem HaPanim – the Show-bread) in the Beit HaMikdash had also become tamei.

The breaking up of the Mizbeiyach after the civil war was particularly painful for those who rededicated the Beit HaMikdash as the many stones together that made up the alter, more than anything, symbolised the unity of Am Yisrael (the Jewish people).
Out of the three missing items needed to continue the service in the Beit HaMikdash, the Mizbeiyach could be replaced relatively quickly; the flour also. The problem was the oil. Hashem made the one flask of oil, only meant to last one day last until they could replenish the supply. A whole eight days.

The origin of the minhag to eat Sufganiyot

Many would guess that the custom to eat sufganiyot is quite a recent thing. In fact the minhag is mentioned by Ramba”m’s father in the 12th century where he writes that the minhag goes back to the Chashmonayim themselves in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel).

In the writings of R. Mamion (The Ramba”m’s father), Rav Nissim Goan p. 328, we find the following:

אין להקל בשום מנהג ואפילו מנהג קל. ויתחייב כל נכון לו עשית משתה ושמחה ומאכל לפרסם הנס שעשה השם יתברך עמנו באותם הימים. ופשט המנהג לעשות סופגנין, בערבי אלספינג, והם הצפחיות בדבש ובתרגום האיסקריטין הוא מנהג הקדמונים משום שהם קלויים בשמן לזכר ברכתו - כלומר לנס שבפך שמן

(What follows is not a literal translation. I hope I have nevertheless captured the essence of the Ramba”m’s father’s words).

You should not belittle or underestimate any minhag, even one that might be considered by some to be minor or of little importance. One must use all his financial resources to [celebrate Chanuka] by having a Mishteh (a festive party), being beSimcha (to fill the festival with joy) and have Maachal (to make special foods in honour of the festival) in order to publicise the miracle that Hakodesh Baruch Hu did for us, in those days of old.

We already have an established minhag to make sufganiyot (doughnuts) (in Arabic "El sphinj) which are Tzapichit Bdevash (sweet baked goods, or "Iskirtin") and this minhag is an ancient one (of our fathers) since [these foods] are boiled in oil, to commemorate the miracle that occurred to that flask of oil [in the Beit haMikdash].

Based on this source we know that eating sweet fried foods on Chanuka to publicise the miracle of the oil is an ancient one, possibly going back to the times of the Chasmonayim themselves.

Rav Beinish Ginsburg explains that the Chashmonayim needed something that would commemorate the civil war, the rededication of the Beit HaMikdash and the reunification of Am Yisrael. Therefore they took sweetened dough made from flour and fried it in oil to make a cake ball with a bracha of Mezonot. This would entail having to say a bracha Achrona (the blessing said after eating any food made from flour but not bread) of “Al HaMichya”.

The text of the Al HaMichya bracha reads as follows:
Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, for nourishment [of this cake] and sustenance and the produce of the field. For the desirable, good and spacious land that You were pleased to give our forefathers as a heritage to eat of its fruit and be satisfied with its goodness.
Have mercy Hashem our G-d, on Israel, Your people; Jerusalem Your city, Zion, resting place of Your glory. Your Mizbeiyach and Your Temple. Rebuild Jerusalem, the city of holiness, speedily in our days. Raise us up into it and make us joyous in the rebuilding and let us eat from its fruit and be satisfied with its goodness and bless You upon it in holiness and taharah (ritual purity).
And for You, Hashem, are good and do good to all and we thank You for the land and for the nourishment [of this cake].
Blessed are You, Hashem for the land and the nourishment [of this cake].

It is interesting to note that this short bracha said after eating Mezonot (any flour based food which is not bread) contains the blessing for the Jewish people, Jerusalem and specifically mentions the Mizbeiyach. It also asks for the return of taharah (ritual purity). Compare this with the Bircat Hamazon which is said after eating bread and is much longer. It never mentions the Mizbeiyach at all.

So in conclusion, eating a ball of sweet dough from flour fried in oil, that is a sufganiyah which entails mentioning Am Yisrael and the Mizbeiyach after eating it, actually encompasses all the elements to commemorate the festival of Chanuka.

As Ramba”m’s father says, “You should not belittle or underestimate any minhag, even one that might be considered by some to be minor or of little importance”.


abigail said...

A beautiful and apt way to bring more meaning to a seemingly silly (and high calorie) custom. Thank you for making the connection between the donuts and Me'ein Shalosh.

zur yisrael said...

rav zevin's name was shlomo

Reb Mordechai said...

Yasher Koach Zur Yisrael. Thank you. I have corrected the text to read "Rav Shlomo Zevin".

Bouncer said...

Soooo... what's the red jam for then?

West said...

Very interesting. Thank you for helping give this custom some meaning.