בְּכִסְלֵו – מאבן בֹחן | On Kislev, from the poem Even Boḥan (“Touchstone”) by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus ben Meir (1322)

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Hebrew (source) English (translation)

וּבַחֹדֶשׁ הַתְּשִׁיעִי בְּכִסְלֵו .
קוֹל הֲמוֹן שָׁלֵו .
לִכְבוֹד מַתִּתְיָה בֶן יוֹחָנָן לֹא לִגְנֵאי .
וְלִכְבוֹד בֶּן חַשְׁמוֹנַאי .
יֵאָסְפוּ הַנָּשִׁים הַחֲשׁוּבוֹת .
בְּקִיאוֹת לַעֲשׂוֹת הַבִּרְיָה וּלְלַבֵּב הַלְּבִיבוֹת .
עֲגָלוֹת גְדוֹלוֹת כְּהֶקֵּף הַמַּרְחֶשֶׁת .
וּמַרְאֵיהֶן טוֹבְיָנִי וְאַרְגְּמָנִי
כְּמַרְאֵה הַקֶּשֶׁת .
יֹאפוּ אֶת הַבָּצֵק מִינִים יַעֲשׂוּ מַטְעַמִים מֵהָעִסָּה .
חֲבִיץ קְדֵרָה וּבֶן דַּיְסָא .
וְעַל הַכֹּל יִקְחוּ סֹלֶת חִטִּין .
וְיַעֲשׂוּ מִמֶּנוּ הַסֻּפְגָּנִין וְהָאִסְקְרִיטִין .
וְהַשְּׁתִיָה כַדָּת בִּשְׂמָחוֹת
וָגִיל עַל כוֹס וָכוֹס .
לְהַעֲבִיר רָעַת נִיקָנוֹר וּבַגְרִיס וְצָרַת אַנְטִיוֹכוּס.
In the ninth month, in Kislev,
(his voice raised)
in order to honour Mattityah ben Yoḥanan the reknowned
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
to convey evil to Niqanor and Bagris and suffering to Antiokhus.

English translation by Dr. Susan Weingarten from her article, in her article, “Medieval Hanukkah Traditions: Jewish Festive Foods in their European Contexts” (Food & History 8:1, 2010).

Torah as Milk: The Subversion of Predatory Appetite through Dairy Meals

As on Shavuot, dairy is traditionally eaten on Ḥanukkah. Why? In the Jewish etiology of predation, the predatory instinct survived in Nature (and human nature) after the Flood. The seventh Noaḥide law ever min haḥai (not eating the limb of a living animal), taught to humanity following the revelation of the Rainbow, was intended to circumscribe predatory behavior. According to a tradition witnessed first in the book of Jubilees (ch. 6-7), it was not until the lineage of Avraham that a people came forward to observe this command. If blood in meat signifies the satisfaction of the predatory instinct, then milk – the nurturing product of a living animal – represents the subversion of that instinct. Torah, thus, is poetically described as milk.

For Ḥanukkah, the motif of dairy foods as the means by which Jews subvert predators is strongly evidenced in the popular aggadot of Judith and Antiokhus, and substantiated by Jewish food traditions. The association of the infamous villains of Ḥanukkah’s chief stories with sexual predation and violence underscores the significance of dairy foods as symbols of the manifest powers of the Torah and its people in subverting the predatory impulse. In his commentary on the Talmud Shabbat 10a, Rabbenu Nissim from Gerona in Spain (the RAN) writes that ‘the daughter of Yoḥanan’ “gave the chief enemy cheese to eat to make him drunk and they cut off his head and everyone fled. Because of this there is a custom to eat cheese [on Ḥanukkah].” The RAN is later cited by the authoritative code of religious law, the Shulkhan Arukh (OH 570,2), which was written in 16th century Palestine: “There are those who say we should eat cheese on Ḥanukkah, because of the miracle over the milk which Judith fed the enemy.” As Dr. Susan Weingarten notes in her article, “Medieval Hanukkah Traditions: Jewish Festive Foods in their European Contexts” (Food & History 8:1, 2010):

Thus these two medieval Jewish sources note a custom of eating cheese on Ḥanukkah somehow connected to the story of Judith. However, there is no mention of Judith feeding Holophernes with cheese in the apocryphal book of Judith, or in most of the other extant versions of the Judith story. The only place where there are details of a connection between cheese and milk, and Judith’s encounter with Holophernes is in our Megillat Yehudit. Here, when Judith comes to meet Holophernes, she gets her maid to make levivot, salt them, and add pieces of cheese, haritzei ḥalav. The salty cheese makes Holophernes thirsty so he drinks more wine, which leads to his downfall. The reference to halav, milk, in this story of a woman defeating an enemy general in a tent, reminds us of the biblical Jael, who tempted the enemy general, Sisera, made him drowsy with milk, and hammered a tent-peg into his head to kill him (Judges 4.19; 5.25). The reference to cheese as haritzei ḥalav also alludes to the young David, who took haritzei ḥalav to his brothers’ captain, just before his encounter with Goliath – which ended in cutting off his head (I Samuel 17.17; 17. 51). This cheese is now being used to foreshadow Judith’s eventual triumph over the enemy. And the pieces of cheese are picked up at the end, in the details of the mishlo’aḥ manot, the list of foods to be sent as gifts by each Jew to her neighbour in the future commemoration of Judith’s victory.

Before potatoes entered the diet of Ashkenazi Jews, latkes were cheese pancakes, or cassola, as described in “Even Boḥan” (Touchstone), a satyrical poem by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus ben Meir (b.1286 – died after 1328).

Weingarten explains:

Kalonymos has taken the name levivot, food fried in a pan, marheshet, from the biblical levivot fried in a masret, (a different sort of pan) in the story of Tamar in the book of Samuel (I Samuel 13.6. Biryah (line 4) also comes from the story of Tamar, where it seems to be a general term for food.). The biblical text gives us no details of what these levivot were made of, but Rashi’s medieval commentary on this passage says they were made of fine flour mixed with boiling water and then fried in oil (RASHI, commentary on I Samuel 13.6.). According to Kalonymos, they were large and round, covering the whole of the frying pan. Levivot, as noted, also play an important part in Judith’s victory over the enemy general Holophernes as related in Megillat Yehudit. When Judith first meets Holophernes he is smitten by her beauty. “Come lie with me my sister,” he says, using the words of the biblical Amnon to Tamar before he rapes her. Judith puts Holophernes off till the evening, when she asks her maid to prepare pancakes, levivot, just as Amnon asked Tamar to make him pancakes in the biblical story: telabev levivot. Judith is in grave danger of being raped by Holophernes, and the food described in Megillat Yehudit underlines this. However, although levivot from the story of Tamar are also used by Kalonymos in Even Boḥan, there this food term is simply used for what it is, not for what it signifies (Kalonymos juxtaposes levivot and biryah).

Ultimately, Jewish festivals eschewing meat strongly allude to a vision of the world that is completely just, a world in which there is no non-consensual taking. In Jewish mythic-history, this vision accords both with the antediluvian edenic world with its universal plant-based diet, as well as to the vision of Olam Haba described in Isaiah 11:6-9, where Nature is no longer managed by predatory diet. Whether read Isaiah literally or as metaphor, the realization of this comprehensive vision depends on societies committed to purusing compassion and justice.

Hebrew (source) English (translation)

וְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ
וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ
וְעֵ֨גֶל וּכְפִ֤יר וּמְרִיא֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו
וְנַ֥עַר קָטֹ֖ן נֹהֵ֥ג בָּֽם׃
וּפָרָ֤ה וָדֹב֙ תִּרְעֶ֔ינָה יַחְדָּ֖ו
יִרְבְּצ֣וּ יַלְדֵיהֶ֑ן
וְאַרְיֵ֖ה כַּבָּקָ֥ר יֹֽאכַל־תֶּֽבֶן׃
וְשִֽׁעֲשַׁ֥ע יוֹנֵ֖ק עַל־חֻ֣ר פָּ֑תֶן
וְעַל֙ מְאוּרַ֣ת צִפְעוֹנִ֔י גָּמ֖וּל יָד֥וֹ הָדָֽה׃
לֹֽא־יָרֵ֥עוּ וְלֹֽא־יַשְׁחִ֖יתוּ בְּכָל־הַ֣ר קָדְשִׁ֑י
כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ דֵּעָה֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֔ה
כַּמַּ֖יִם לַיָּ֥ם מְכַסִּֽים׃
And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed;
their young ones shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the nursing child shall play on the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the basilisk’s den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHVH,
as the waters cover the sea.
[This essay was first publised in Megillat Antiokhus and Additional Writing Concerning the Festival of Hanukkah (Aharon Varady & John C. Reeves, Dimus Parrhesia Press 2015).]

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