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Why Eat Latkes and Sufganiyot (Doughnuts) on Chanukah?

Why Eat Latkes and Sufganiyot (Doughnuts) on Chanukah?

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Jews eat greasy food on Chanukah. While some prefer latkes and others doughnuts (or “sufganiyot,” as they’re known in Hebrew), the underlying custom is the same: to eat foods fried in oil.

The earliest mention of this custom seems to have been made by Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph (born c.1110), father of Maimonides, who wrote:

“[People] shouldn’t be lenient regarding any custom, even the lightest of customs. And one is obligated to make every effort to prepare festivities and foods to publicize the miracle that G‑d did for us on those days [i.e., Chanukah]. It has become customary to make “sufganin,” known in Arabic as “alsfingh” . . . This is an ancient custom, because they are fried in oil, in remembrance of His blessing.”1

In other words, there is an old custom to eat foods on Chanukah that are fried in oil, as a remembrance of the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days.2

This custom has remained firmly entrenched in Jewish practice.

More than 800 years later and on the other side of the globe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote that “on one of the evenings of Chanukah, [the third Lubavitcher Rebbe,] the Tzemach Tzedek, would customarily hold a kind of farbrengen with the members of his family, including his daughters-in-law. This gathering was known as a latke evening.” The Alter Rebbe and the Mitteler Rebbe had done likewise. And the stories and subjects that they passed on at this festive meal included some that they spoke of every Chanukah, even though they had spoken of them the previous year.”3

The Oil of Torah

In addition to commemorating the miracle, the mystics point out that oil represents the esoteric level of the Torah, for oil both penetrates a material through and through, and rises above other substances. Chanukah, especially, is a time when one should increase his learning of the inner level—the “soul”—of the Torah.4

During the Chanukah story, the Greeks tried to detach the Jews from Torah. It’s not that they were against the intellectual, and even moral, teachings of the Torah. They were all for more knowledge. But they could not accept that the Jews viewed the Torah as Divine wisdom that transcends creation.

Thus, the physical battle between the Greeks and the Jews represented a deeper, philosophical controversy—between the rational and the suprarational. One can be a great Torah scholar, an expert in pilpulistic methodology, but if he is unaware of the soul of the Torah, if the “oil of Torah” has not penetrated into his being, then he can remain untouched by what he has learned. It is the "oil of Torah" that penetrates, permeates and illuminates one's whole being, empowering one to transform and illuminate the world.5

Footnotes
1.
Rabbi Maimom ben Joseph (Hadayan) in his Arabic work on prayer, Chanukah, quoted by Rabbi Yehuda bar Meir Toledano, Kovetz Sarid Ve-Palit, p. 8 (Jerusalem 1945).
2.
Some have postulated another reason for eating sufganiyot on Chanukah. When the Maccabees retook Jerusalem, they managed to clean and purify the Temple. However, they were unable to purify the altar, and instead needed to bury the stones. This pained the Jews, and it therefore became customary to eat foods for which the after-blessing is Al Hamichya (or “Bircat Ma’ain Shalosh”), since it is the only after-blessing that explicitly mentions the altar (Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach in Halichot Shlomo 2, p. 319). However, this reasoning doesn’t explain why the custom is to eat specifically doughnuts (or latkes) fried in oil since the after-blessing of Al Hamichya is recited not only on all cakes and cookies, but on any of the fruits of the seven species.
3.
Hayom Yom, 28th of Kislev.
4.
See, for example, Igrot Kodesh, vol. 20, p. 90.
5.
For more on this, see Spiritual Schizophrenia.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Anonymous December 14, 2017

You can have fried food to honor tradition, but I think that oven fried food is better for commemorating the miracle. With oven fried food, one jar of oil use for greasing the pan can really last a 8 days. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel December 14, 2017

Sufganiyot verses Personal Circumference? Happy Chanuchah! What with the sufganiyot, my weight grew by almost a kilogram, and that was only during the first two days of our festival! I enjoyed every morsel of our celebratory food, but which policy is best? Reply

Anonymous Florida December 14, 2017

Just because my mother said so. Reply

Shoshana GA December 13, 2017

Don't forget bunuelos! Reply

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