Holiday Foods

Foods associated with holidays depend on geography.

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On the eve of Yom Kippur, it is important to serve a filling meal without provoking thirst. The meal is similar to that of Rosh Hashanah less some of the sweets. The meal is eaten before the onset of Yom Kippur. It is called seudah mafseket, the concluding meal before a fast. There is no kiddush, and the festival candles are lit after the meal and before going to the synagogue. A light dairy dinner is often eaten after the fast, consisting of assorted fish, eggs, and salads.

The Sukkot table is laden with the fruits and vegetables of the fall harvest. Stuffed foods of all kinds are served to symbolize the richness of the harvest. Cabbage filled with ground beef in a sweet and sour sauce, holishkes (or gefilte krult), are popular among Ashkenazic Jews. Israelis stuff eggplants (chatsilim) and green peppers (pilpel memula). Strudel stuffed with apples, peaches, or other fruits is served for dessert.

Hanukkah is celebrated by eating foods cooked in oil, such as potato latkes(potato pancakes) and sufganyot (jelly doughnuts) to symbolize the miracle of the oil. It is also customary to eat dairy dishes in remembrance of the story of Judith in the Apocrypha.

Hamantaschen, a three-cornered pastry filled with prunes, poppy seeds (muhn), apricots, or other fruits, is the most popular of Purim foods. It is three-cornered, tradition says, to look like Haman's ears or like the purse he wanted to fill with the Jews' gold. Haman's ears are a favorite Purim dessert. They are a fritter-like pastry, deep-fried, and sprinkled with sugar or honey. They are known as Hamansooren in Holland, Orechie de Aman in Italy, Oznei Haman in Israel, and Honuelos de Haman in Spanish-speaking countries.

The sederis a celebration and learning experience shared by all present. The special foods served enhance the beauty and the meaning of the night. Passover foods vary in Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities. Ashkenazim exclude rice while Sephardim serve rice. Ashkenazim also exclude millet, corn, and legumes (beans and nuts). The Rabbis thought that the seed inside the bean would "rise" like leavening. Since no leaven (chamets) may be used, matzah is the main ingredient of Passover cooking. There is a rich variety of foods made from matzah and matzah meal. Ashkenazic favorites are kneidlach (matzahmeal dumplings), matzah brei (fried matzahwith egg and onion), and kremslach (matzah meal fritters), which recall the meal cakes offered as sacrifices in Biblical times. Matzahmeal or potato flour is used instead of flour.

Sephardic dishes are pahthut, a Yemenite soup stew made with matzahmeal, and Turkish minas and mahmuras, layers of matzahfilled with vegetables, cheese, or meat.

Dairy foods are served on Shavuot. According to legend, after our ancestors received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, they returned to their tents too hungry to wait for meat to be cooked so they ate previously prepared dairy dishes. Milk, cheese, and honey are the favorite foods of this festival. The sweet dishes made from cheese and honey symbolize the sweetness and richness of the Torah. Popular dishes are blintzes stuffed with cheese, cheese-filled Strudel, beet Borsht served with sour cream, kugel(noodle pudding), and cheese cake. Sephardic Jews serve dishes like shpongous (a cheese-spinach bake), sometimes using salted ewe's milk.

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Rabbi Steven M. Fink

Steven M. Fink is rabbi at Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore.