What comes to mind when you think of Purim? Costumes, the megillah, gift baskets, and of course, those delectable three-cornered pastries, hamantaschen. Called oznei Haman in Hebrew, these treats filled with poppy seeds (or other fillings) have been a part of Purim celebrations for centuries. Where did they originate? What do their names mean? And why are they eaten on Purim?
Join us as we search for the ancient roots of this delicious pastry.
One of the oldest mentions of a Purim treat referred to as oznei Haman is in a Purim comedy skit written by Yehudah Sommo (1527- 1592) of Italy.
Literally translated as “Haman’s ears,” this name led to the myth that the pastries celebrate the cutting off of the wicked man’s ears before he was hanged.
However, “oznayim” can sometimes refer to non-Purim pastries. In fact, in describing the manna which fell from heaven while the Jews were in the desert, both Rabbi Yosef ibn Kaspi (1279-1340) and Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437-1508) describe a pastry called oznayim, with no mention of Haman or Purim at all. (In many Eastern European cultures, there are stuffed dumplings referred to as “little ears.”)
Lastly, there is no documentation of any such barbaric mutilation having been carried out.
Daniel, Esther and the Real Hamantash
Although nowadays you can find hamantaschen filled with practically any type of filling (sweet or savory), the classic hamantash was always filled with poppy seeds. Indeed, the very word “haman” can either refer to the wicked Haman or poppy seeds (mohn), and the Yiddish word“tash” means pocket. Thus, “hamantaschen” means “poppy-seed-filled pockets.”
This is in line with the classic explanation given in the Code of Jewish Law for eating hamantaschen on Purim:
Some say that one should eat a food made out of seeds on Purim in memory of the seeds that Daniel and his friends ate in the house of the king of Babylon, as the verse states, “And he gave them seeds.”
But what in the world does Daniel eating seeds have to do with Purim?
The Talmud explains that Hatach, Queen Esther’s faithful messenger and one of the lesser-known heroes of the Purim story, is a pseudonym for none other than Daniel.
Furthermore, as we read in the Purim story, when Esther was in the king’s palace, she kept her identity secret. The Talmud explains that since the food was unkosher, she survived on various beans and seeds.
It is in commemoration of both Daniel and Esther that there is a custom to eat beans and seeds on Purim. The way this custom is traditionally observed is by eating pastry pockets, a.k.a. taschen filled with mohn, poppy seeds.
Based on this reason for eating hamantaschen, whenever the classic halachic sources discuss this custom, specific mention is made of the hamantash being filled with poppy seeds.
In addition to the classic reason for hamantaschen, many other explanations have been offered to explain this custom. Indeed, just about every aspect of this treat is laden with symbolism. Here are some explanations given.
The Weakening of Haman
“Tash” in Hebrew means “weaken.” Thus, the hamantash celebrates the weakening of Haman and our wish that G‑d always save us by weakening our enemies.
During the Purim story, many Jews did not believe they were going be completely wiped out. Mordechai convinced them of the seriousness of the threat by sending them numerous letters warning them of the impending doom. Afraid to send the letters by conventional routes lest their enemies intercept them, he sent the letters hidden inside pastries. In commemoration of this, we eat pastries with a filling.
A well-known insight into the hamantash points to the fact that the filling is hidden inside the dough. In earlier times, our ancestors were accustomed to experiencing open miracles. In a time of exile, we don’t necessarily experience openly revealed miracles anymore. Nevertheless, the Purim story shows that this does not mean that we’ve been abandoned (G‑d forbid). On the contrary, G‑d is ever present. He’s just operating in a behind-the-scenes fashion, just as the filling of the hamantash is hidden within the dough.
While there is an old legend that Haman wore a three-cornered hat, and to commemorate his downfall, we eat a three-cornered pastry, there is a deeper significance as well.
The Midrash says that when Haman recognized (the merit of) our three forefathers, his strength immediately weakened. Because of this, we eat three-cornered pastries and call them “Haman weakeners (tashen).”
Another reason for corners: The Hebrew word for “corner” in Hebrew is “keren,” which literally means “horn,” and can also denote “ray,” “fortune,” or “pride.” Thus, the sages understand the verse, “And all the kerens of the wicked I shall cut down” as referring to Haman, and “Exalted will be the keren of the righteous” as referring to Mordechai.
No discussion of hamantaschen can ignore its sister food, kreplach, meat-filled dumplings often served in soup. We customarily eat them three times a year: Purim, the eve of Yom Kippur, and Hoshanah Rabbah.
Rabbi Yosef ben Moshe of Hoechstaedt (1423–1490), author of Leket Yosher, is perhaps the earliest halachic authority who mentions kreplach as specifically connected to Purim. Kreplach are also mentioned by Rabbi Yoel Sirkes (the Bach, 1561- 1640), his son-in-law, Rabbi Dovid Halevi (the Taz), Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz (the Shalah, 1565 -1630), and many others.
Various reasons have been given for eating kreplach on Purim, and it seems plausible that some aspects of this custom have transferred over to the hamantash as well.
On most holidays, the sanctity of the day is apparent, since we abstain from many forms of work. There are three times a year when we eat a festive holiday meal replete with meat even though work is permitted and the specialness of the day is somewhat obscured: Purim, Erev Yom Kippur, and Hoshanah Rabbah—the three days when we eat kreplach.
Meat and Flour
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains, in relation to Yom Kippur, that the meat in the middle of the kreplach signifies the emotional attributes, called the middot, whereas the dough enveloping the meat—made from wheat flour—signifies knowledge (da’at) of G‑d and the Torah, which is also compared to flour.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, the innermost attribute of kindness, which is hidden within intellect, shines forth. We pray that G‑d’s attribute of kindness and mercy will be revealed in our mind and hearts, and that we too will respond to others with kindness and compassion.
The Zohar compares the holiday of Purim to that of Yom Kippur. In fact, it is explained that one can accomplish more through rejoicing and celebrating on Purim than one can accomplish through fasting and praying Yom Kippur. This is hinted to in the very names of the holidays, for Yom Kippur can be read as Yom Haki-Purim—the day which is (only) like Purim. Therefore, just as on the eve of Yom Kippur we eat kreplach, we do so on Purim as well.
Hamantaschen in Exile
Although there is no obligation to eat hamantaschen on Purim, many have gone through great hardships just to fulfill this perhaps minor custom.
Rebbetzin Chana, the mother of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, writes in her memoirs that when she accompanied her husband, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, into exile for spreading Judaism, it was at times impossible to get anything special for Shabbat, including bread and candles. One time, she got hold of flour and set aside some in order to bake hamantaschen for Purim. In her words:
The festival of Purim arrived. We had a Megillat Esther, which I had once included in a food package I had sent my husband.
For Purim, we were visited by two evacuees, a young Jewish man, inclined towards Communism, and his female neighbor, an engineer who had once studied Yiddish and was interested in Judaism.
Some time before, I had set aside some white flour, with which I baked two hamantaschen. Although it’s a minor custom, it played an important role in our lives, reminding us that we were still human and still Jews, and that not every day was the same. We were reminded that we could be concerned with loftier concepts—not just with thinking about our daily bread, and drawing the pail of water from the well and hauling it through the mud, always spilling some and making the already swampy ground even muddier.
The two guests were our company for Purim. They regarded hamantaschen as an excessive extravagance and, as was prevalent in that culture, inveighed against the “old-fashioned” customs.
Thank G‑d, most of us do not need to save flour for our hamantaschen and need not fear that we will be denigrated for eating them. So what are we waiting for? Let’s bake some hamantaschen!
Click here for an array of hamantaschen recipes ranging from kid-friendly to gourmet.