Latkes, Hanukkah Donuts and the Head of Holofernes

What did Jews eat on Hanukkah throughout the generations? When did the sufgania come along? And what were latkes made of before potatoes reached Europe in the 16th century?

A few years after Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended the throne of the Seleucid dynasty, the Maccabean Revolt began. It was a struggle between Jews who were zealously protective of their religion and culture and the Hellenized Jewish elite who were supportive of the Hellenistic reforms introduced by the new king.

Three years of tenacious fighting ended with a Maccabean triumph. While the coveted victory was obtained, the Temple remained in a state of neglect and chaos, forcing the victors to rededicate the altar and celebrate – though rather late – the eight-day-long festival of Sukkot. A few hundred years after the fall of the Hasmonean dynasty, the Talmud recited the story from a slightly different angle; completely ignoring all military-related matters, the Talmudic story tells of the Temple’s priests who found a small cruse of olive oil that hadn’t been desecrated; though the amount of oil it contained should only have been enough to light the Temple Menorah for a single day, it miraculously lasted a full eight.

It is hard to think of a more appropriate story to establish a holiday filled with a wonderful assortment of oily, fatty foods – the kind that make you immediately want to scrap all those failed diet plans and new year’s resolutions, as well as any semblance of proper eating manners as you gobble away (no worries, we’ve all been there). But it turns out that was not the case. Comfort food dunked in rivers of olive oil was an invention born much later in history.

A small cruse of natural ‘Tnuva’ honey for Hanukkah, the National Library Ephemera Collection

Judith and Holofernes – A Hanukkah Story?

The mention of the oil cruse is one of the very few references to the Maccabean Revolt made in Talmudic literature. As a result, the question “What are we eating?” – perhaps the most important Jewish question imaginable when it comes to the holidays – was not fully answered, at least according to historical research, until the 14th century.

So, what did they eat during Hanukkah in the 14th century?

Around this time, the Sephardic Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Girona (known as the RaN) instructed that one must eat dairy foods on Hanukkah. To substantiate this custom, the RaN told an interesting story about ‘The daughter of Yohanan’, who, deeply concerned for the fate of her people, fed cheese to the commander of an enemy army so that he would grow thirsty – and then proceeded to decapitate him. Following the death of their commander, his soldiers fled.

This story is conspicuously reminiscent of the well-known story of Judith and Holofernes. The RaN, followed by other Jewish rabbis of those days, began to falsely associate the story of Judith (who was not always mentioned by name) with Hanukkah – even though according to the Book of Judith itself, its heroine lived hundreds of years before the days of Antiochus. Who was Judith and how did she make her way into the story of Hanukkah?

The Book of Judith is part of the Jewish Apocrypha, a non-canonical text which survived over the ages thanks in large part to Christian traditions which adopted it. The story tells of Judith, a Jewish widow who snuck into the camp of an enemy force camped outside Jerusalem and loyal to Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. The beautiful Judith seduced the enemy’s general Holofernes, feeding him dairy foods (according to certain versions) which caused him to become thirsty and drink large quantities of wine. When the drunk commander fell asleep, she decapitated him, spreading panic through the Babylonian intruders’ camp and causing the enemy soldiers to disperse in confusion. The RaN found justification in the medieval folktale versions of the story of Judith for what was apparently a popular custom of the time – eating cheese on Hanukkah. This is albeit the fact that Judith’s name does not actually appear in the story told by the RaN.

“Judith with the Head of Helofernes” by Giuseppe Cesari. The story became a common theme in European art

Latkes With No Potatoes? What is That?

More familiar Hanukkah foods began to appear in the 14th century. It was then that Hanukkah levivot (latkes in Yiddish) were mentioned for the first time in the satiric poem Even Bohan, composed by the rabbi and poet Ḳalonymus ben Ḳalonymus in Provence. But what were these pancakes made of, especially when potatoes were to reach Europe only well after America was discovered in the second half of the 16th century?


The first print of Even Bohan, Naples, 1489, one of the first books printed in Hebrew.

The folktale versions of the story of Judith provided an answer to this pressing question. According to some versions of the story, when Judith wished Holofernes to become thirsty, she fed him levivot, in addition to the aforementioned dairy foods. After beheading Holofernes, Judith commanded that a festive meal be prepared, including levivot or latkes, made from a mixture of dough and honey. Judith also encouraged the consumption of wine, to help bring about the joy of the holiday, much like in the story of Purim which appears in the Book of Esther.

And what about that marvelous oil? When did that come in? As it turns out, it all started with the sufganin – the ancestor of the sufgania (Hanukkah donut) we so adore. As early as in the Mishna, the word sufganin (סופגנין) appears in a complex Halachic discussion relating to the ancient custom of Hafrashat Challah – the setting aside of a portion of bread dough for the Temple’s priests – a practice which  was forced to evolve after the destruction of the Temple.

New immigrants to Israel celebrate Hanukkah with IDF soldiers and sufganyot, the Eddie Hirschbein Collection

The authors of the Tosafot, who added to Rashi’s commentary on the Torah and Talmudic literature between the 12th and 14th centuries, were the first to associate the sufganin with Hanukkah. Over time, the link between doughy pastries, the sufganin and Hanukkah grew stronger; by the 14th century, oily foods were a proud Hanukkah tradition. Here below is a translated segment from Even Bohan, Rabbi Ḳalonymus’ 14th century poem  which makes reference to levivot and sufganin:

In the ninth month, in Kislev,
(his voice raised)
in order to honour Mattityah ben Yoḥanan the renowned
and the Ḥasmoneans,
the important women should gather
knowledgeable about making food [biryah] and cooking levivot,
large and round, the whole size of the frying pan,
and their appearance good [tovyani] and ruddy [argamani],
like the appearance of the Rainbow.
They bake the dough and make different kinds of tasty food from the mixture,
Ḥavitz in the pot, and porridge;
and above all they should take fine wheat flour
and make sufganin and isqaritin from it.
And the drinking should be what is proper to festivals,
with joy over every single cup


Even Bohan translation courtesy of the Open Siddur Project

The Composer Who Angered the President of Israel

Andre Hajdu, one of the greatest and most groundbreaking composers in Israeli history, a recipient of the Israel Prize, was not popular with everyone…


Andre Hajdu in his home in Jerusalem. Photo: Dana Shimoni

Silence filled the hall as the piece known as Ludus Paschalis, written by the composer and future recipient of the Israel Prize, Andre Hajdu, reached its climax. Suddenly, a single, brave voice uttered the words, “Mr. President, forgive us”. They were meant for Mr. Zalman Shazar, the President of the State of Israel, who had sponsored the special concert held at the Hebrew University in January, 1971. It was merely the second time the piece had been performed in front of an audience, following the concert premiere which was held in Tel Aviv the previous evening.


The festive concert was part of the Jerusalem Testimonium Festival, a special event being held for the second time, for which a number of pieces, dedicated to Jewish and biblical themses, had been specially composed. That year, the participating composers were asked by the concert’s organizer, Recha Freier, to create pieces relating to the Middle Ages. Who could be better-suited for such a task than Andre Hajdu? Though Hajdu, one of the most highly-regarded ethnomusicologists in Israeli history, was not a fan of mixing biographical and musical elements – we will use this opportunity to take a closer look at the extraordinary life of this fascinating figure.

Andre Hajdu was born in 1932 to a Jewish family in Budapest. He survived the Holocaust and later studied music under the greatest Hungarian musicians of his day, including Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, who were composers as well as ethnomusicologists. Following in their footsteps, Hajdu began studying ethnomusicology and folklore. He spent much time with the local Romani people (previously known as Gypsies), learning their language and studying their musical culture.

Hajdu later moved to Paris following the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, yet he did not find his place there and struggled to make a living. He later spent time in Tunisia, where he “rediscovered” his own Judaism amidst the unique Jewish community of Djerba. Upon his return to France, he began studying Gemara and observing mitzvot. What followed was only natural: With the encouragement of Dr. Israel Adler, founder of the National Sound Archives and the Jewish Music Research Centre, Hajdu made Aliyah and turned his attention to the study of another type of folk music – Hassidic music and the traditional melodies sung in the Beit Midrash.

Considering all this, when Hajdu was asked to compose a piece for the Testimonium, it was only natural that he created a piece of musical theatre dealing with the relationship between Jews and Christians, with the scourge of antisemitism and its place in the world – this was was the infamous Ludus Paschalis. The piece depicts a group of Christian children murdering their friend who poses as a Jew as part of a game.

The Hebrew words – “Mr. President, forgive us”, can be heard at the beginning of this recording from the performance:


In an interview he gave a few years later, Hajdu said the piece was “intentionally provocative”: “It was a sort of psychoanalysis of Christianity… (antisemitism) will be gone from the world only when the world itself is gone.” The entire piece, as recorded on that fateful night, can be heard here.


A segment of Ludus Paschalis in Hajdu’s handwriting. Courtesy of the Hajdu archive, the National Library of Israel


Yamim VeLeylot supplement, Maariv, January 29th, 1971

President Shazar was upset; the Jewish characters in the musical did not react to the murder which took place on the steps of the Beit Midrash, and this passivity was not to his liking. He left the event and did not attend the celebratory reception held in his honor after the performance ended. Sometime later, a meeting was arranged in an attempt to settle matters between the composer and the President. The meeting was not very successful, but over time, raw emotions were calmed. During the 1990s, the controversial composition was even played on Israeli public radio. Hajdu himself continued developing his career as a researcher, lecturer and composer, writing music to accompany various Mishnayot (verses of Jewish biblical commentary), composing sections of the Book of Ecclesiastes and more.

“The President Left the Premiere of “Testimonium” in Anger, Removing His Patronage”, Davar, January 6th, 1971

Hajdu’s unique personality and teaching methods encouraged improvisation and attracted the attention of students who wished to study with him. Well-known Israeli composers and artists admired the composer who passed away in 2016, including Gil Shohat, Yoni Rechter, Yonatan and Aharon Razel, among many others.



Andre Hajdu’s archives are kept at the National Library of Israel.


If you liked this article, try these:

The Enigmatic Researcher of the Magic of Music

The Majesty and the Mystery of Kol Nidre

Is the Shofar Really the Voice of God?



The Life of Abraham: Scenes from Hebrew Manuscripts

The trials and tests of Abraham the Patriarch have been explored time and again in Western art and literature

Abraham reaches for the boy, from Yehiel Ben Moshe David's Pinkas HaMohel, 1844, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, USA, 18th and 19th centuries

Since the completion of the ‘Book of Books’, its countless readers have derived inspiration from the great struggles, tests and challenges its heroes faced. It is therefore no surprise that the numerous challenges experienced by one of the Bible’s most renowned and beloved heroes – Abraham the Patriarch – are explored again and again in Western art and literature.

One of the themes most commonly adapted by medieval illuminators of Jewish manuscripts was the sentencing of Abraham to death by Nimrod, King of Ur of the Chaldees, by having him cast into a burning furnace. This story does not appear anywhere in the Bible but in Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, an ancient midrash comprised by Jewish sages to complete the missing pieces of the story of Abraham.

In the famous story, Abraham is cast into a burning furnace for rejecting idolatry and miraculously survives at the hand of divine intervention. In three manuscripts written during the 14th century, the heavenly intervention is illustrated in different ways: The Carpentras Passover Mahzor, held in the British Library, shows Abraham surrounded by flames, as two angels (distinguishable by their wings) enter the furnace to rescue him.

The Carpentras Passover Mahzor | The British Library, London, England, 14th century

The second depiction of Abraham being thrown into the burning furnace is found in the Leipzig Mahzor which was composed sometime around the year 1320. The Mahzor, located at the Leipzig University Library, shows the hand of God himself rescuing Abraham from the burning furnace.

The Leipzig Mahzor | Leipzig University Library, Leipzig, Germany, 14th century

The third depiction appears in the Barcelona Hagaddah, a Passover Haggadah composed in Barcelona around the year 1320: King Nimrod is again shown ordering his subjects to throw Abraham into the burning furnace. Once more, winged angels intervene to ensure Abraham is not consumed by the flames.

A Passover Hagaddah, Nusach Sefard | The British Library, London, England, 14th century

Abraham’s rescue from the burning furnace is not the only scene to be illustrated by these medieval artists. A few hundred years later we find an even more notable scene, perhaps the most famous episode in the the Hebrew Bible – the Binding of Isaac.

The Italian mohel, Matsliah Yehiel Ben Moshe David, maintained a register of his work for over fifty years. The first entry in this register, known as a Pinkas HaMohel, was logged during the Hebrew calendar year 5552 (corresponding to the year 1792 in the Gregorian calendar) and the last is dated 5604 (1844). Most of the register is dedicated to recordings of the circumcision ceremonies he conducted over this period lasting more than fifty years.

The register entries are consistent and contain the dates on which the mohel circumcised the eight-day-old infants; the names of their fathers; each child’s place of birth (e.g. ‘Parme’ – the Italian city Parma); who held the baby on his lap during the circumcision (the godfather or sandak); and who served as kvatter (the person appointed to carry the child to be circumcised). The mohel then recorded the baby’s name, add the blessing: “May he enter into Torah, into marriage, and into good deeds, and so may it be Your will, let us say, Amen.”

Aside from these records of his work, referred to by the register’s owner as Peratim (particulars), the register also consists of a few songs and prayers for the circumcision ceremony, pictures of scenes from the Bible and an “Introduction to the particulars”. The first picture in the register is of the Binding of Isaac. The association here is a curious one: In the Book of Genesis, the Binding of Isaac appears after the covenant between God and Abraham had already been made. Isaac should have already been circumcised by that time.

A register of circumcision | The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, USA, 18th and 19th centuries

This mohel illuminator wasn’t the only one to confuse the Binding of Isaac with the circumcisions of Abraham and Isaac which took place during the covenant between God and Abraham in the earlier Torah portion ‘Lech-Lecha‘ (Genesis 12:1–17:27). In another illustration, which appears in a copy of Sefer Evronot, an even clearer allusion to circumcision is made in the depiction of drops of Isaac’s blood. This work was written and illustrated in Prussia in the Hebrew year of 5476 (1716). Staff members from the National Library’s manuscripts department hypothesized that the illustrations were mainly influenced by what the illustrator may have seen in his own environment, and likely also by various illustrated plaques which would have been common in nearby Christian communities.

Sefer Evronot | The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, Israel, 18th century


If you liked this article, try these:

How a Handwritten 12th-Century Manuscript by Maimonides Ended Up at the National Library

Spotting a Fake: The Flourishing Industry of Jewish Manuscript Forgeries

The Package is Secure: How Jewish Women Were Smuggled to Safety in 19th Century Italy

The Return of the Lost Siddur of the Jews of Catalonia

Following years of work, we take a look at a reconstructed medieval prayer book used by the Jewish communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca

“May the Creator who conceived the entire world in His glory be sanctified and exalted. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. A day when a new window has opened in the heavens and the streams of our prayers return to their stead. I give thanks before you, King living and eternal, to have been privileged to publish the prayer book of the holy community of Catalonia in an edition adapted to our times and to restore the original splendor and administer the customs of the holy communities that lived and thrived in the Middle Ages in the lands of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca.”

With these words Dr. Idan Perez begins the Siddur Catalunya—the first complete reconstruction of the lost prayer book once used by the great pre-expulsion sages Nachmanides, Rabenu Yonah Gerondi, and Rabbi Hasdai Crescas, as well the Jewish communities of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca, then independent kingdoms before their unification under the crown of Aragon and later Spain.

Dr. Perez, now head of the Rare Books Department at the National Library of Israel, worked on the restoration project for three years. The prayer book, which was never printed in its entirety (except as a Mahzor for the High Holy Days), was recreated based on six separate manuscripts. The earliest (a manuscript preserved in the Ginzburg collection in Moscow) dates to around 1352, more than one hundred years before the expulsion. The last of the manuscripts, preserved in Rome in the Biblioteca Casanatense, was copied in the year 1507, less than twenty years after the expulsion. “I didn’t add a single word of my own, everything came from the manuscripts,” he explains.

The primary (and earliest) manuscript on which Dr. Idan Perez relied, Moscow, Ginzburg 821

The first major obstacle facing the restorer was the inaccurate information that appeared in the catalog of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts. “Sometimes other rites of prayer were (wrongly) mentioned in the manuscripts as being the Catalan rite (nusach), and the manuscripts that were written in the Catalan rite were marked as other versions. The errors in the catalog stem from the fact that in the past, the information was copied from printed catalogs and not checked, and also because the Catalan prayer rite had not been thoroughly researched until now.”

Dr. Perez consulted with experts of the relevant prayer rites and with their help, prepared a list of manuscripts that contained without doubt the Catalan rite. “I then prepared a list of characteristics of the rite and the various customs that I found in the manuscripts (this list appears in the introduction to the prayer book).

I used Manuscript A (Ginzburg) as the basis. As a first step, I prepared tables of contents for all the manuscripts. I compared all the parts of the prayer book as they appeared in all six manuscripts and recorded the differences. In the prayer book, I used the earliest version as the basis, noting differences in versions or spelling in the footnotes and sometimes in square brackets in the text. The parts of the prayer book that are not found in Manuscript A were copied from the other manuscripts and this was noted in the footnotes.”

A request put forth by Nachmanides, published for the first time ever in the Siddur Catalunya, from the latest manuscript on which Dr. Idan Perez relied, Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome, 2741

Whoever speaks with Dr. Idan Perez cannot help but notice his Spanish (more precisely, his Catalonian) accent. I asked him how he came to reconstruct the lost prayer book, “I am a native of Barcelona and I was always intrigued to know what the ‘Catalan nusach’ which the sages referred to actually was. As we know, this ancient prayer style did not survive because the communities of the Catalan Jews did not survive the riots, persecutions and the Holocaust. Today, there is no community that prays according to this nusach. I began my historical research about the Jews who fled Catalonia after the riots of 1391 and the expulsion in 1492 and reached important findings in the communities of the expelled Catalans in Italy, the Ottoman Empire and Algiers.” Thus, he learned about the lost prayer book and his ultimate goal became clear: “To restore the full text and be as faithful as possible to its earliest version.”

To support the project, click here.


Frontispiece of the Siddur Catalunya, according to the rite of the Holy Community of Catalonia


Morning prayer rite from Siddur Catalunya


If you liked this article, try these:

How a Handwritten 12th-Century Manuscript by Maimonides Ended Up at the National Library

The Package is Secure: How Jewish Women Were Smuggled to Safety in 19th Century Italy

Spotting a Fake: The Flourishing Industry of Jewish Manuscript Forgeries