Once and for All: Why We Eat Hamantaschen on Purim

Why was it specifically Haman’s ear that was chosen as the inspiration for this holiday treat?

The Hebrew term for the pastry otherwise known as the hamantasch is ozen Haman (literally, Haman’s ear). As is fairly evident, this popular Purim treat does not actually consist of an ear, nor does its shape particularly resemble an ear. So, why was an ear chosen to symbolize Haman the Agagite – the villain of the Purim story? One could also ask how did Haman come to be associated with this triangular pastry?


A Hebrew advertisement and recipe for “Haman ears” from 1975

Haman the Agagite, who incited King Ahasuerus against the Jews and who wished to kill every last one of them in the 127 states ruled over by the Persian king, was an evil and wicked man.

In ancient times, it was customary to clip a criminal’s ear. According to some commentaries, this explains the verse in the Book of Esther “And Haman’s face was covered” (7, 8), and the midrash “Haman entered the king’s stores, stooped, mourning and ashamed, his ears clipped, his eyes darkened” (Megillah 16).

But perhaps there is another reason entirely, which has to do with another, less familiar Haman and the celebration of “Purim Vintz” in Frankfurt, Germany. It is said that in the year 1615, the baker Vintz Fettmilch led a pogrom against the Jews of Frankfurt that ended with Jews’ expulsion from the city. For half a year, the homeless Jews wandered outside the city until Fettmilch was finally arrested and the Jews were called to return. Fettmilch didn’t last long after that—he was sentenced to death and executed in the city square. Some say that before his head was cut off, his ears were clipped, and you can use your imagination to fill in the rest. Thus, it is possible that we call the triangular cookies we eat on Purim oznei Haman (Haman’s ears) not because of Haman the Agagite, but because of Purim Vintz, which occurred on the 20th of Adar 5376 or February 28, 1616. This often overlooked version of the classic holiday commemorates the German Haman – the evil baker who rose up against the Jews in Frankfurt am Main.

Another explanation links the pastry with the tricorn officer’s hat, similar to the one worn by Napoleon. Some traditions suggest that Haman, son of Hammedatha the Agagite, chief advisor to Ahasuerus King of Persia, wore such a hat. This speculation has brought in its wake a wave of triangular cookie baking which allows us a chance to take bites out of evil, from each of its three corners.


Was Napoleon’s hat the inspiration for Hamantaschen?

Yet another explanation suggests that the custom of eating oznei haman is borrowed from a Christian tradition of eating triangular-shaped cookies called “Judas Ears” on Good Friday, the Friday before Passover, to mark the day when Judas Iscariot handed Jesus over to the Romans. Perhaps the Jews decided to adopt this custom and “reverse” it and mark the death of Haman with a triangular pastry eaten not on a day of mourning but on a holiday—Purim.


An advertisement for Maxwell House Coffee from 1965 that ran during Purim

We have left some room in our tummies for one more explanation—the story of the Hamantaschen. Hamantasch, “Haman’s purse” or “Haman’s pocket”, is a triangular pastry filled with poppy seeds. The term incorporates the word Tasch (pocket), while poppy seeds are called mohn in German and Yiddish. The similarity to the name “Haman” makes this a perfect combination.

It was in 1912 that the Hebrew Language Committee decided the official Hebrew name for Hamantaschen would be oznei Haman.


The Hebrew Language Committee announcement proclaiming the new term for Hamantaschen alongside other newly translated foods

In the version of the Jews of Bohemia, for example, the filling isn’t made from poppy seeds but rather a plum jam called puvidel, after the saving of the Jews of the city of Jungbunzlau in 1731 in a “Purim Katan” (small Purim). This affair originated with a false rumor which spread about the grocer David Brandeis, who was said to have sold poison plum jam to a Christian family. The local Christians wanted to extract revenge from him and the local Jews, but when it became clear that the jam that was purchased at the grocer’s store had been tasty and fresh, and that the man who ate it had been ill with tuberculosis and died from the disease, the plot was revealed and disaster avoided (according to Sefer ha-Moadim, vol. 6).

It doesn’t matter what the filling of your Hamantaschen is made of. The recipe for the pastry isn’t important either. All that matters is that it is kneaded, boiled, baked, fried, chewed and swallowed, and anything else you can think of so that you are able to conquer the evil and destroy it with your own hands and mouth.


An advertisement for Osem flour, the Eri Wallish Collection, the National Library’s Time Travel Project

The information above is drawn from several sources, but mainly Sefer ha-Moadim, vol. 6, and Muli Bar David’s wonderful book , Sefer Bishul Folklori (A Folklore Cookbook), which explores the culinary traditions of Jewish communities, and its updated version Sefer ha-Bishul ha-Gadol le-Mat’ami Yisrael (The Big Jewish Food Cookbook) published by Varda Bar-David Mor. 



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Spotting a Fake: The Flourishing Industry of Jewish Manuscript Forgeries

Hebrew letters jumbled together and Stars of David in every corner - The National Library is swamped with calls from “collectors” from Arab countries offering “historical manuscripts” that supposedly once belonged to Jewish communities in Islamic lands.


About ten years ago, when Dr. Aviad Stollman was less than a week into his new job as the curator of Judaica Collections, he was inundated with a stream of emails and instant messages on his personal cellphone and Facebook account from strangers who were sending him pictures of antique manuscripts he could not identify. The photographs and messages, which were being sent from Arab countries, were meant to entice the recipient to purchase these lost historical items that had at one time belonged to various Jewish communities from Islamic lands, and had now been rediscovered many decades after the Jews, who had lived in these countries for the last two thousand years, were gone.

Looking at the growing pile of evidence, the new curator had no choice but to ask himself some tough questions:  Were these items proof of some unknown writing tradition? Was it possible these were artifacts not yet accounted for by the historical research of Jewish communities from the Islamic countries? And why were all the manuscripts inscribed on metal and not parchment or paper as is generally the case? Taking a second (and in some cases also a third) look at the messages was all Dr. Stollman needed to quell any uncertainty. He and many other experts have since discovered that it takes only little time and practice to recognize a forgery.

The first pictures he received were also the easiest to spot: manuscripts, and this is an iron-clad rule, are not engraved on metal (with the exception of inscriptions), and most definitely are not printed on metal. Another dead giveaway was the content of these “lost works”: most of the forgers, looking to get rich quick and attempting to take advantage of the naiveté of others, exposed their own lack of knowledge in the process. In most cases, the manuscripts were filled with text that, while composed of Hebrew letters, were complete gibberish. Apparently, the forgers copied Hebrew texts from the internet, but possessing not even an elementary knowledge of the language led them to many strange mistakes in the transcription.


Forgeries from Libya


However, the forgers’ ignorance, not to mention greed, didn’t end there. Next to images of these “lost treasures” were also price tags. It’s hard to imagine that any of the eager sellers behind these objects had ever bothered to look at a catalogue from one of the many auction houses in Israel or the world specializing in Hebrew manuscripts. Otherwise why would they be asking for astronomical prices in the millions and sometimes even in the tens of millions of dollars?


An example of a WhatsApp conversation with a potential seller: the seller is offering books and manuscripts purportedly dealing with “Kabbala, the Messiah and conversations with God himself.” The seller also notes that “the person who examined these artifacts is the director-general of Jordanian archaeology. The artifacts are 700 years old and are 100% authentic. There are three books, five manuscripts and two manuscripts that open.”

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An example of manuscripts sent from Jordan


Not only photographs and videos of ancient manuscripts arrive weekly at the Library. Sometimes items of a different sort come up, which are no less interesting. This sword, for example, is decorated with a Star of David and letters that resemble Hebrew script, which are actually gibberish.


Occasionally, the forgers seems not to know what direction Hebrew is read in — right to left or left to right, or perhaps bottom to top?

It’s important to note that not everyone who sends pictures of these “recently discovered lost items” is in on the joke (by the way, no matter how many examples have already been uncovered, every new one that surfaces succeeds in raising a chuckle). Some collectors, themselves citizens of Arab countries, often with deep pockets, have innocently purchased a rare manuscript or item whose value was worth more than its weight in gold, or so they were told. Among those who were quick to pass on information to Dr. Stollman and other Library staff about a sale were a former head of the Mossad, Israeli media and political personalities, and others in either direct or indirect contact with the Arab world. People continue to contact the Library daily about items like these.

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The text printed on these supposedly ancient documents from Belgrade appears to have been copied, poorly, from a New-Age self-help book.

The fakes have improved over time. The metal has been replaced by parchment, textiles or paper made to look antique. Nevertheless, Dr. Stollman tells us, “With a trained eye—it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to figure out that it’s a fake.” Historical knowledge helps spot the new fakes that contain images (apparently printed ones) of a Star of David on the cover. Interested in selling their wares to Israeli collectors, the forgers don’t understand that the symbol that appears on the flag of the State of Israel is a modern one, so their promises that the artifact is thousands of years old don’t even hold up to the simple test of looking at the cover of the book being offered for sale.


Cloth forgeries

Some items that do pass the cover test are Torah scrolls that have been placed inside an original Torah mantle that was likely preserved in a synagogue in one of the Arab countries. A quick look at the scroll itself is enough to determine that the scroll itself is a fake while the mantle is authentic.

It seems that not all researchers dismiss the evidence sent daily to potential buyers. In England for example, the Centre for the Study of the Jordanian Lead Books treats these items in all seriousness. On the center’s webpage, members discuss the question of authenticity: “The writing on the metal books is not babble. There is definitely code or encryption in the writing. Members of the Panel have already prepared some translations, these were presented as a preliminary report to the Board of the Centre at the Annual General Meeting on the 26th May 2016.” Our thorough search of their website did not yield any such report, but in the center’s other publications—including videos on YouTube on which the comments option has been blocked—it is claimed over and over that (apparently)  these are authentic artifacts—or at the least copies and replicas of authentic items that have been lost. We, however, have yet to be convinced.

In conclusion, Dr. Stollman, who today serves as chief curator of the National Library, admits, “from time to time, an item comes up that makes you pause, even if only for a few seconds.” The most confounding item he confronted was a Persian-Jewish forgery. What made even the experienced curator doubt whether this might actually be an original historical artifact was the text—it was a known, authentic Persian-Jewish text. In this case, the images gave the forgery away – the illustrations that did not match the text. “The forgers combined images that were not always related to the original text, and naturally they added the menorah—for authenticity.”


Persian-Jewish forgeries



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Demon-Busting Magical Bowls from Babylon!

Does trouble keep coming your way? Maybe it's just bad luck, or perhaps it's those pesky demons again…In any case, it's important to act quickly! That's why the National Library keeps a collection of magical demon-exorcising bowls created by Babylonian Jews!

A magical bowl meant for trapping malicious demons.

Babylon. The middle of the first millennium CE. An individual gets up in the morning, suffering from a stomach ache or any other pain that may prevent one from leaving home and “earning one’s bread.” So, what does one do? At the time, in Babylon, there were several options: one could consult with the elders, visit the nearest doctor, pray to the heavens above or… order a magical bowl to capture the demons trapped inside oneself.

The Jews of Babylon were not the only ones who created and purchased magical exorcism bowls. Between the fifth and eighth centuries, Babylon was flooded with enchanted bowls used for capturing demons. There is reason to believe that the Jews were considered experts in the field, as over sixty percent of the magical bowls that have been found to date had their spells inscribed upon them by Jewish “wizards,” for the use of both Jews and non-Jews.

Each bowl was made by hand and no two bowls were identical, though some of the same patterns and formulas do appear on many of them. Most of the bowls were made specially by pre-order for specific owners, whose names were inscribed on the bowls themselves. Bowls were often buried under the floor of a house to protect the owners, family and property from attacks by malicious demons.

Incantations were written on the bowls in three ancient Aramaic dialects – Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Mandaic and Syriac. The text was usually inscribed on the inside of the bowl in spiral form, from the center outwards. Sometimes drawings were added to illustrate the efficacy of the magic, such as an image of a bound demon, a wizard or some other heroic figure wrangling the evil demons. Today, we know of more than two thousand such magical bowls located in museums and private collections around the world. Most of them are preserved away from the public eye.

How, then, did the Library come into possession of several of these bowls? Recently, seven of these rare enchanted objects were donated to the National Library of Israel by collector Avigdor Klagsbald. These seven joined another single bowl that is part of the Gershom Scholem Collection, donated many years ago by the famous scholar of Jewish mysticism. The bowls are among the oldest items in the Library, and here you can have a look at them…


  1. The story of Smumit: A mother protecting her children

This bowl was donated by Gershom Scholem. The inscription tells the story of a character named Smumit, who lost her sons at the hands of a demon called Sydrus. She fled and built herself a fortress, where she gave birth to another son. Unfortunately, Sydrus managed to enter the fortress and kill this newborn child as well. When Sydrus’ crime was discovered, he fled. At this point, came a heavenly intervention: Four angels – Soni, Sasoni, Sangri, and Ertico – pursued and caught the demon. When they were about to kill him, he swore not to harm the children of the bowl owner wherever the names of the four angels were mentioned. There are certain connections between this story and the story of Lilith, the first wife of the biblical Adam, an infamous demonic murderer of children, which appears in the medieval work Alpha Beta deBen Sira. The names of the first three angels can still be found today, in a slightly altered from, in amulets and talismans intended to protect pregnant women. In the center of the bowl is a drawing of an unidentified figure. The story of this bowl was originally published in 1985 by Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked. It was brought to light again recently in the work of James Nathan Ford.



קערה בעלת כיתוב בארמית בבלית יהודית. מתוך אוספי הספרייה הלאומית
Bowl with Jewish Babylonian Aramaic inscription. From the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library.


  1. The Mandaic bowl of Zadoi Ben Dadai

The inscription on this bowl is written in the Mandaic language, which is a dialect of ancient Aramaic spoken in Babylon by members of the Mandaean community. The incantation is directed against a long line of Lilith-like demons, each with a different name. On one side of the bowl we can spot the figure of a demon, perhaps one of those from which the owner of the bowl, Zadoi Ben Dadai, sought protection. These bowls are the earliest evidence of the culture of the Mandaean community, which exists to this day.


קערה בעלת כיתוב במנדעית. מתוך אוספי הספרייה הלאומית
Bowl with Mandaic inscription. From the National Library Collection.


  1. A bowl to protect a house and its residents

This bowl barely survived the arduous journey to Jerusalem. It was reassembled from several fragments, but one of the pieces is clearly still missing. The inscription on the bowl, written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, is an appeal to a large number of angels to protect the house and its inhabitants. A demon with long hair, bound by its hands and feet, is featured in the center of the bowl.


קערה בעלת כיתוב בארמית בבלית יהודית. מתוך אוספי הספרייה הלאומית
Bowl with Jewish Babylonian Aramaic inscription. From the National Library Collections.


To the Library’s collection of magic bowls


This article was written with the generous assistance of Dr. James Nathan Ford of the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at Bar-Ilan University.


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