As Purim approaches, you’re probably preparing to enjoy some of these delicious three-cornered pastries. And if you grew up in a Jewish home, you’re likely familiar with the story of how hamantaschen got their shape – and what their connection is to the holiday of Purim. But do you know the whole story?
In the megillah, Haman is the evil man who tries to annihilate the Jewish people. When his plan is foiled by Queen Esther and Mordechai, Haman’s treachery is revealed and he is hanged on gallows he himself constructed.
So where do the cookies come in? Tradition states that the shape of the cookie is meant to resemble the shape of the hat worn by Haman. Another theory is that they reflect the shape of Haman’s ears, which were reported to be triangular.
“Early versions of the cookies were more commonly known as oznei-Haman, meaning ‘Haman’s ears.’ The late Jewish food historian Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food traces that phrase — but not the cookie — to the Roman scholar and poet Immanuel ben Solomon (c.1261-1328) who, thanks to ‘a misinterpretation arising from the medieval Italian custom of cutting off a criminal’s ear before execution,’ argued that Haman’s ears had been cut off after he was hanged, at the end of the Purim story.” (Olivia Waxman for TIME)
Since eating something in the shape of a hat is perhaps more appetizing than eating something in the shape of a deceased villain’s ear, it’s not surprising to see which explanation for the cookie’s appearance prevailed.
Hamantaschen can have virtually any kind of filling, although poppy seeds and prunes are among the more traditional ingredients.
“Aside from their general widespread use in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the seeds are said to be the only food Queen Esther consumed during her three-day fast prior to revealing Haman’s plot to the king,” Tina Wasserman writes on ReformJudaism.org. “Some say poppy seeds also symbolize the promise God made to Abraham to have offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands of the seashore.”
The name for triangular poppy seed pockets in medieval Europe – Mohntashen – sounded a lot like “Haman,” leading the cookies to eventually be labeled hamantaschen and solidifying their association with Purim.
“Prune filling became traditional in the 18th century. As the story goes, in 1731 a plum preserve merchant named David Brandeis living in the Czech town of Jungbunzlau was imprisoned for allegedly poisoning plum preserves. Finally, he was acquitted. To celebrate his freedom, the Jews of Jungbunzlau filled their Hamantaschen with povidl, plum preserves (prunes are dried plums), and thereafter referred to the holiday as Povidl. When Rhineland Jews moved east to Poland, Russia, and Hungary, they brought this Hamantaschen tradition along with them.” (Tina Wasserman for ReformJudaism.org)
No matter how you choose to explain the shape or what you decide to use as filling, we wish you a happy Purim. And don’t forget to join us on Wednesday, February 28 at 7 p.m. for an extraordinary Purim shpiel featuring the music of QUEEN!