The Historical Importance Of The Jewish Pastry Hamantaschen
- Vritti Bansal
Updated : February 11, 2022 08:02 IST
Israelis call hamantaschen ‘oznei haman’ in Hebrew, which translates to ‘Haman’s ears’.
Sweet, triangular pastries with a poppy seed filling, or hamantaschen, are a popular food item eaten during the Jewish festival of Purim. These days, fillings for hamantaschen aren’t restricted to poppy seeds but range from fruit jam to even savoury ones.
Religious teachings suggest that hamantaschen represent the shape of Haman’s three-cornered hat (Haman was the biblical figure who planned to persecute the Jews of Persia). According to the story of Purim, Jews did not believe that their genocide was going to be carried out. Mordechai, Esther’s father, conveyed the seriousness of the threat to their survival by sending them letters warning them of the impending tragedy. Careful not to send the letters by conventional means for fear of the enemies finding them, he sent them hidden inside pastries. To commemorate this, Jewish people eat pastries with a filling.
Israelis even call hamantaschen ‘oznei haman’ in Hebrew, which translates to ‘Haman’s ears’. American Jews happily used the word hamantaschen. However, in Palestine, Eliezer Ben Yehuda revived Herbrew and wanted a Hebrew word for the sweet Purim pastries; he came up with ‘oznei haman’. And so in Hebrew, hamantaschen came to be known as ‘oznei haman’. The first written reference to hamantaschen was found in a 16th satirical play called ‘A Comedy of Betrothal’ written by Jewish-Italian playwright Yehuda Sommo.
The ‘Encyclopaedia of Jewish Food’ by late Jewish food historian Gil Marks traces the phrase “Haman’s ears” to the Roman scholar Immanuel ben Solomon. Solomon argued that Haman’s ears had been cut off after he was hanged, at the conclusion of the story of Purim. He based this on a misinterpretation arising from the mediaeval Italian custom of cutting off a criminal’s ears before execution, although there is no record of mutilation.The idea of naming a pastry after a villain is to change its interpretation to something sweet. Hamantaschen portrays Jewish humour. Gil Marks has commented that Purim is a time when joking and frivolity is encouraged.
In the 18th-19th century, triangular pastries called ‘mohntaschen’ appeared in Germany and Eastern Europe. In the Yiddish-German dialect, ‘mohn’ means poppy, referring to the poppy seed filling, and ‘tasch’ means pocket. The Jewish impulse to eat triangular cookies shaped like Haman’s hat (or ears) coupled with the existence of mohntaschen, resulted in the birth of hamantaschen.
Another explanation for the popularity of hamantaschen during Purim can be found in Alfred J Kolatch's ‘The Jewish Book of Why’. Kolatch writes that the three corners of the hamantaschen pastry represent the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Historically, eating Haman's ears was meant to symbolise the destruction of his memory. Today, they're usually seen as a part of the custom of ‘mishloach manot’ (gifting food) and the saccharine fuel for lively Purim festivities.