Kreplach are small dumplings made with minced meat, chopped vegetables, and often a layer of cabbage leaf… and no one likes them! So why do we eat these little dumplings each Sukkot? Where did the tradition come from? And is it really important enough to ruin our chicken soup for?
I remember standing in the kitchen as the smell of boiled cabbage made me gag into the chullent pot, watching my mother roll minced meat in her hands and chop vegetables until she cried. She said it was the onions, but I think it was the long hours of ordering around her 8 children, trying in vain to organize us into teams to either peel potatoes, or help our father build the sukkah.
Since the raising of our stubborn wooden sukkah would come with copious swear words and much cursing, and I was the youngest of the children, my job was always safely tucked away from the violence of the tent poles and into the relatively safe home of the sharp knives and boiling pots of the kitchen. This is why I have such strong memories of the kreplach-making process. While Passover was welcomed with smells of cinnamon from the sweet charoset, and Purim was filled with poppy-seeded hamantaschen biscuits, the ceremonial food of Sukkot was always the kreplach dumplings.
In case your ancestors don’t hail from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, I will enlighten you: kreplach are small dumplings made with minced meat, chopped vegetables, and often a layer of cabbage leaf. Each Jewish mother swears that her way is the only real way to make kreplach – less meat, more meat, cabbage on the inside, cabbage on the outside – but the truth is, even prepared according to meticulous tradition, they never taste all that great. Many people will cook them in the chicken soup broth, whereby they inevitably fall apart and make the soup lumpy and strange. But tradition is tradition!
So why is this a Sukkot tradition? Sukkot is the Jewish festival which arrives less than a week after the High Holy Days, and celebrates the Jews’ faith in G-d. For the week-long festival, Jews build walled huts with roofs made from natural materials, and dwell in these temporary living places. Most practicing Jews eat all of their meals in this hut, and many sleep inside them too. During Sukkot, it is also customary to buy a citron, a palm frond, some myrtle, and willow branches and shake them together in a prescribed manner. The tent symbolizes how Jews are willing to leave their comfortable homes and place their faith in the sustenance of G-d alone, while the shaken salad represents the bringing together of all different types of peoples. Each custom of this holiday is dripping with meaning, and Sukkot comes with many mystical practices and traditions which are carried out with care and joy.
But why the kreplach?! As with most things in Judaism, the answer depends on who you ask.
One reason is a particularly kabbalistic reason. In Kabbalah, it is often believed that the food we eat has a direct impact on our mindset. Instead of the idiom “you are what you eat,” Kabbalah subscribes to the more prophetic “you will be what you eat”. As such, we must eat food which manifests our desired outcomes at appropriate points in the year. On Hoshana Raba, the final day of Sukkot, our fate for the next year is said to be sealed and closed by G-d. Sukkot is part of a triad of festivals known by the terror-evoking name “the Days of Judgement”, and kreplach represent the type of judgement that we would like to receive: full of meat and onions.
In all seriousness, according to Jewish mystical tradition, meat is a food which is said to evoke G-d’s might and power. As a food source, it gives life by energizing us, but it also takes away life (namely the life of poor Curly the Cow), thus meat represents this strong and powerful hand of G-d. Bread, on the other hand, is the most innocent of foods, so long as you don’t have a particular affinity with the plight of wheat. Bread sustains life even in the most desperate of situations, and was a lifeline for the biblical Jews in the desert, hence it represents G-d’s kind and forgiving nature.
Taking these ideas together, we eat kreplach on Sukkot to symbolize that G-d’s harsh judgements of us (the meat) should be shrouded in His kindness (the dough). We wish for G-d’s mercy to cover His might and therefore judge us favorably. Moreover, we eat the kreplach in the hope that when we go before G-d’s judgement, He overlooks our most human trait of containing both good and bad like the meat, and sees only our purity and goodness, as characterized by the bread. In fact, a special prayer is even added on Sukkot to ask that G-d’s mercy should overcome His wrath and that He should see our purity, not our tainted personalities.
There is, however, another deep idea about kreplach, because even dumplings have meaning in Judaism. Kreplach look like little buns, and it’s only when they are bitten into by an unsuspecting bread-seeker that the hidden meat is revealed. Kreplach are secretive little foods, which makes them apt to eat on what is sometimes called the “hidden holiday” of Hoshana Rabbah, the final day of Sukkot.
The last day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah, is a bit of a mystery. The day’s meaning is not stated in the Torah, and its practices which range from the slightly abnormal (the congregation paving seven circles around the synagogue while chanting and singing) to the outright bizarre (headless shadows and the bashing of willow branches against the ground until the synagogue looks more like a jungle than a place of prayer) are not explained at all in the Torah. If Hoshana Rabbah isn’t a big enough enigma already, it is certainly made more so by the fact that it’s official culinary sponsor is kreplach.
Some attribute kreplach’s significance at Sukkot to their shape. Kreplach are usually formed into three-sided parcels, which are said to represent the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot. I can already hear you asking “but then why do we only eat them on only one of these pilgrimage festivals if they’re meant to represent all three?” The reason is mainly a practical one. On Passover, when any leavened bread will get you hastily kicked out of the kosher kitchen, it is not the time for a dough-based appetizer. And Shavuot, the other of the three pilgrimage festivals, is a holiday that marks the very start of the wheat harvest. Back in the day, it was fairly difficult to prepare kreplach when your main ingredient was still in the ground! So, of all the three festivals, Sukkot, which marks the end of the wheat harvest, was the only one on which it was both practical and appropriate to make wheat-based foods. After all, wheat is now in abundance! Thus, Jews make the food of the three pilgrimage festivals on this date.
All that being said, many dispute that we eat kreplach due to any of these mystical or traditional reasons. Of course, these meanings add significance to the practice, but they simply may not lend the food it’s true origin story. So, if it’s not due to the holiness of the dumpling, why do we spend so many hours folding the parcels and ruining our chicken soup?
Well, one reason is that in the Middle Ages, dumplings were an especially popular food all over Eastern Europe. In Polish they’re called pierogi, in Ukrainian they’re called Varenyky, and in Russian they’re called Pelmeni. In many Eastern European cultures, these dumplings were eaten as a festive food on holidays such as Christmas. In fact the very word pierogi, used in much of medieval Europe, comes from the word “pir” which is proto-Slavic for “festivity”.
Because it was common practice to eat dumplings on holy days, the local Jews did it too! The Ashkenazim simply called them kreplach, from the Yiddish words krepp (rounded dough) and lach (little). It was not due to some esoteric teaching that the Jews ate these dumplings, but simply because common practice at the time was to eat dumplings at festivities.
In a time when meat was a rarity and much more prized than today, families would have to make meat stretch to many hungry mouths during big festive meals. And portioning it out into dough parcels was a great way of doing that! Never was this truer than at Sukkot! After a full season of High Holidays, the Jews of old, much like the Jews of today, looked at their wallets with despair. In lieu of buying new ingredients, they had to use what was left over from the previous Tishrei festive meals. Namely, challah dough and scraps of meat. And what can you make with challah dough and scraps of meat? Yes, that’s right! Kreplach!
Even the custom of boiling them in the chicken soup rather than cooking them in oil was a novel way to save money on cooking supplies. So the tradition caught on – Jews would take wheat, which was abundant at this point in the agricultural year, and grind up the last of their leftover meat, and stick it in their bubbling pots.
This is not to say that kreplach have no meaning. Firstly, the great Rabbis teach that “minhag Yisrael Torah hi” – which means that tradition and custom are no less the word of Torah than biblical laws are. Further, significance is brought to traditional Jewish foods from the fact that our culture has been making kreplach for centuries – this in and of itself is a lineage to pass down. As with most things in life, it’s the thought that counts. If you eat the kreplach with the ideas of compassionate judgement in your mind, or commemorate the hidden nature of the festival through this food, who can tell you that you’re wrong? Meaning is man-made, after all!
Now I’m all grown up and no longer living with my mother, or her huge cooking pots. In fact, with my own daughter on the way, I must decide which Jewish traditions I wish to pass down to her like my mother before me. I had always thought that maybe I would spare her the cabbage-rich stench of the kreplach tradition, but after all this contemplation, I don’t think I will!