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Why Do Jews Eat Lox and Bagels?

Why Do Jews Eat Lox and Bagels?

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Question:

I didn’t really grow up what you would call religious, but we always had a family tradition of eating bagels with lox and cream cheese on Sundays. Even now, there is a synagogue that I pass from time to time that advertises Sunday morning classes with a “lox and bagels bonus.” What’s with Jews and lox and bagels and Sundays?

Also, people sometimes use the term “lox-and-bagel Jew,” and I couldn’t figure out whether that was a positive or negative term.

Can you help shed some light on all of this? Thanks!

Reply:

I always thought that lox and bagels on Sunday mornings is as “Jewish” as apple pie is “American”—except for crabapples, apples aren’t native to the United States, and neither does smoked salmon on bagels appear to be authentically Jewish. However, since we’re in the Jewish month of Adar, a month under the constellation of the fish, I decided to dig deeper and find the Jewish source for this sandwich.

A Bit About Bagels

Legends and theories surrounding the origins of the bagel abound,1 I but will mention just one. In the 12th and 13th centuries, it was quite common for Jews to be banned by law from commercial baking. This stemmed from the belief that since Jews were enemies of the Church, they should be denied bread, which has a central role in Christian religious belief and practice.

In 1264, the Polish prince Boleslaw the Pious issued a decree that “Jews may freely buy and sell and touch bread like Christians.” As a reaction to this, in 1267, a group of Polish bishops forbade Christians to buy any foodstuffs from Jews, darkly hinting that they contained poison for the unsuspecting gentile. At some point, the theory goes, Jews were allowed to work with bread that was boiled, and they created the bagel to comply with his ruling.2

The earliest documented mention of the Yiddish word “bagel” is in 1610, in regulations issued by the Jewish council of Kraków, which stated that bagels were given as a gift to women in childbirth.3

In any event, the bagel gained popularity among Eastern European Jews, and by the time they emigrated en masse to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, the bagel rolled right along with them.

A Little About Lox

The Jewish affinity for salted or smoked fish is based on a number of factors.

First, fish is considered pareve, and can be eaten in a dairy or meat meal. (Note: While fish and meat may be eaten in the same meal, they cannot be eaten together. For more on that, see Fish with Meat or Dairy.)

Second, unlike meat, which has many requirements for slaughtering and preparing it in a kosher fashion, you can buy a whole kosher fish from a non-Jewish store.

Third, smoking or salting the fish minimized the need for refrigeration.

Before there was lox, there was herring. It was only once the Jews emigrated to the U.S., and salmon was relatively cheaper and easier to come by than herring, that lox became a favorite. So, despite the fact that the word “lox” comes from the Yiddish “laks” (“lachs” in German), as far as I know there is no known special Jewish connection to it prior to the early 1900s in the United States.

The Cream Cheese Connection

Gil Marks, a specialist in Jewish culinary history, explains that the very unkosher American classic brunch food Eggs Benedict (two halves of an English muffin topped with ham or bacon, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce) became popular in New York City in the 1930s. Of course, kosher-keeping Jewish people couldn’t eat it. So they substituted lox slices for the ham, cream cheese for the hollandaise sauce, and bagels for the muffins. Thus, the Jews created a new Jewish-American classic, bagels with cream cheese and lox.4

The “Lox-and-Bagel Jew”

Although many view the term as referring to one who has no connection to Judaism other than eating bagels with lox on Sunday, I think this term also has a positive connotation, for it highlights the fact that even assimilated Jews retain a connection to their Jewishness. It may just be a cultural connection to them, but it stems from their forebears’ efforts to keep the kosher dietary laws in a new land.

The Inner Meaning

The bagel has even played a part in revealing the purpose of creation.

There is a well-known chassidic story that Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe) was once learning with Rabbi Avraham “the Angel” (son of the Maggid of Mezeritch).5 While learning, Rabbi Avraham reached such a deep state of soulful longing for G‑dliness that his soul was about to leave him. Thinking quickly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman forced his friend to eat a piece of bagel with butter to bring him down to reality, and “the Angel’s” life was saved.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, remarked that in recording and transmitting this story, chassidic tradition included the “trivial” detail that the lifesaving food was a bagel with butter, but neglected to even tell what lofty subject prompted “the Angel” to almost leave his body.

The Rebbe went on to explain that the bagel had to be eaten because “the Angel” had to live—as a soul in a body—in order to fulfill his purpose: revealing G‑dliness in this physical world through learning Torah and performing mitzvahs. On the other hand, the topic that they were learning together would have caused his soul to leave this world, which would have detracted from his purpose. Thus, the crucial aspect of the story is the bagel with butter, which helped him continue to fulfill his purpose in this world.6

So the next time you savor the taste of a bagel, no matter the topping, remember that our purpose in this physical world can be revealed even in a humble bagel.

Footnotes
1.
Perhaps the most famous one is about the people of Vienna baking bagels in order to pay tribute to the king of Poland, who successfully repelled the invading Turkish armies in 1683. The story goes that since King Jan Sobieski was famous for his love of horses, the bakers decided to shape their dough into a circle that looked like a stirrup—or beugel in German. See, however, The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread (Yale University Press, 2009), where author Maria Balinska proves that for the most part this story is a myth.
2.
Ari Weinzweig, “The Secret History of Bagels,” The Atlantic, 26 March 2009; Maria Balinska, The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread (Yale University Press, 2009).
3.
Leo Rosten, The Joy of Yiddish; Balinska, The Bagel, ch. 3.
4.
Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010), p. 36.
5.
This story is a good illustration of why he was called “the Angel.”
6.
For more on this, see the Rebbe’s talk on Shabbat Parshat Metzora, Shabbat HaGadol, 10 Nissan 5746 (1986).
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Artwork by Sefira Ross, a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Discussion (41)
February 23, 2016
some additional gmo items
it is great to see that the gmo issue is of interest to others. however, it is not like with like, as the inserted genetic sequence can be from bacteria, insects, or other non-kosher items. the most glaring example would be lox made from gmo salmon. gmo salmon has eel sequences spliced into salmon, which results in 4x the size yet has scales and fins (from what i saw on images). corn gmo splicing is from bacteria, at the least.
Anonymous
Long Beach
February 22, 2016
cheese
Ps many Sephardi Jews will have their Bagels with Pareve cheese--to prevent any mix ups in law
todah Yehudah again
yehudah
February 22, 2016
lox for everyone
I love this topic. To the writer Todah. We too are Sephardi Jews and we do eat Lox and Bagels--we are of European decent. Ken, it is true that not all Sephardi will mix fish with anything of dairy, but, we do know the dietary laws is in fact No fish and meat. To the person putting down the writter, know your history. Israel became Israel again through the children of Shem-Israel- European Hebrews and many from New York. The plans were already set for us to return home--especially after the holocaust--so don't lie- The Jews of Israel-came from Europe--then some later mix with the Palestinians or what was there from Babylon-children of Ismael or Ham(Canaan)--Know Torah too it is there.
Ken Bagels could always be found since 1922, in my aunt's house which was Palestine at the time--don't know why that was said-maybe not in large amounts but Ken it was there-
Yehudah-a Sephardi Jew in Israel
To the Writer --good writing Todah Rabah
Yehudah Yehoshua
Israel
February 22, 2016
Re: lox and cream cheese
For more on eating lox with cream cheese see Is lox and cream cheese kosher?
Yehuda Shurpin (Author)
February 21, 2016
KOSHER FOODS
My mother ate cooked cow hoofs she came from Russia . I have lox and bagel with cheese every morning . We also would cook up lima beans mash them up with oil add onions . My mother would soak the lox in vinegar add onions over night. Everyone had different ways making there food. We had fried kipper .
MLK
Brockton Ma
February 21, 2016
Concerning GMO
B"H
Genetically Modified [Organism] can mean almost anything to anybody.
Cross-breeding like with like (soybeans with soybeans--lecithin) seems to be kosher (ask the Rabbi).
Early generations searched their fields for wheat strains with desirable qualities and cross-pollinated them.
Today's GM may still be like with like. The technology uses gene sequencing. Pest-resistant genes of a soybean may be inserted into the best soybean strains that we have already been eating. This is like what the ancients did except several orders of magnitude more efficiently.
These may not breed true, or may be infertile. Back to the "drawing board."
Or Monsanto (to cite a notorious company) sells the seeds each year and prohibits farmers from seed saving, as farmers have always done. Legal, but I don't consider this ethical.
Nothing is tested to check for allergies, let's say. Again legal, but dangerous.
Fish genes inserted into rabbits so that they glow in the dark--probably not marketable.
Nesanel Segal
Overland Park, KS
plazachabad.com
February 19, 2016
Bagels and lox were more Sephardic than Ashkenazi to me...
I grew up in a "mixed" household: Dad was Galitzeannah. Mom's mother was Ashkenaz, but her father was Kosturian Sephardic, and my grandparents' household was pretty much Sephardic. *They*, not my parents (or my dad's mother) were the bagel eaters, the lox eaters, the bagel-with-cream-cheese-and-lox eaters. The Ashkenazic synagogue I went to sent everyone home for meals after b'nai mitzvot, Simchat Torah, etc.; the Sephardic synagogue my grandparents went to had lavish spreads of smoked fish (multiple types), bagels, cream cheese, and butter.
Guess just like with everything, there are varying traditions in Sephardism as well.
blumah freidah
North Plainfield
February 19, 2016
Bagels, Lox and Coney Island
When Woody Guthrie, the great American folksinger, married his wife Marjorie, who was Jewish, they lived in Coney Island (Brooklyn), NY. Woody described it as the place "where the bagels meet the lox."
Rabbi Eli Mallon
New City, NY
February 19, 2016
Bagel - Beigl
It has allways puzzeled me that the jiddish word Beigl (Bejgl?) is called bagel in english. I suppose it is called so because the word bagel is pronounced just like the jiddish word which maybe was too difficult for the Americans ! But when Beigl is the same in singular and plural you use bagel-bagels in english.It is a little bit confusing.

Do anyone know if my homemade theiry is right or wrong?
Birte Bune Smith
Frederiksberg
chabadenmark.com
February 19, 2016
I loved this story!
thanks,
d,eltis
montreal