This blog post illustrates the most famous Jewish holiday food in Israel and abroad. For each holiday, Jews have a different menu that changes also depending on the Jewish ethnic group. Jewish festivals, dating back to ancient times, are still celebrated passionately in Israel. There are religious and traditional customs that conditions and landmarks in Israelis’ lives for each Jewish festival. They bring intrinsic values to daily life in Israel. Everywhere in Israel, from the streets to the Synagogues and homes, people embrace the Jewish holidays’ essence.
Jewish Holiday Food
On Friday night and Saturday, Jews celebrate the Shabbat holiday, during which it is forbidden to cook; hence, it is customary to prepare a big meal on Thursday and Friday morning. Shabbat is a way for families and friends to reunite and enjoy meals together. It is popular to serve fish and challah bread as starters and several salads and sauces. Hereafter, chicken soup, vegetables, kugels and meat dishes are the main dishes. The meals finish with desserts and fruits.
The Ashkenazi cholent is the most popular meat Shabbat recipe, and it consists of beef, potatoes, barley, beans, and kishke, with pepper and paprika. Sephardi hamin consists of chicken or beef, rice, beans, garlic, sweet or regular potatoes, turmeric and cinnamon, with the addition of whole eggs, in Hebrew haminados. Moroccan dafina or skhina consists of meat, onion, marrow bones, potatoes, chickpeas, wheat berries, eggs and turmeric, cumin, paprika and pepper. Iraqi Jews usually prepare the tebit with chicken and rice.
The desserts are usually homemade or come from bakeries, and the usual cakes are sponge and chocolate cakes, citrus semolina cake, cinnamon or chocolate babkas, fruit and nut cakes.
The New Jewish Year is Rosh Hashanah. It is a festival whose celebration happens with the preparation of big family meals and serving as a starter a honey dip with apples and finishing the meal with a honey cake. Unlikely Shabbat, the challah is round and sometimes sprinkled with raisins and always dipped in honey. The usual appetisers of Rosh Hashanah are pomegranates, carrots, leeks and beets. As in the case of Shabbat, in the Jewish New Year, fish is served as the first course; in the Jewish tradition, it always comes before meat dishes.
Ashkenazim typical fish is gefilte fish, which is groundfish such as carp, whitefish, pike, mullet, Nile perch with eggs, onions, bread or matza crumbs, spices, salt, carrots and potatoes and it is boiled in fish stock. Sephardim use to prepare the chraime, a very spicy dish consisting of fish such as mullet with garlic, onions, hot and sweet paprika, cumin, tomato paste, jalapeno, crushed red pepper flakes and salt.
Pomegranate dishes are diffuse in the Rosh Hashanah menu, and the typical dessert is the lekach, a dense honey cake. There are variations of lekach as a sponge or pound cake, and other variants are gingerbread, pain d’épices, or lebkuchen.
In Hannukah, it is a universal Jewish custom to prepare fried food such as latkes and sufganiyot. Latkes are fried potatoes pancakes coming from Ashkenazi culture; sometimes, latkes consist also of zucchini and cheese besides potatoes. The potatoes can be grated or smashed depending on the family custom. Nowadays there are also versions with carrots and onions. Sufganiyot are round jelly doughnuts, and they are usually deep-fried and filled with jam or custard. Nowadays, besides the sufganiyot filled with strawberry jam, there are the ones with cream, chocolate, coffee, and cappuccino fillings; moreover, they are coated with powdered sugar and cream and other decorations.
- The lower spiritual level corresponds to fruits and nuts with inedible peels and hard shells such as oranges, bananas, walnuts, and pistachios.
- The middle spiritual level corresponds to fruits and nuts with soft peels such as dates, apricots, olives and persimmons.
- The highest spiritual level corresponds to fruits and nuts eatable as a whole such as figs, berries and almonds.
The fruits with a shell symbolise the most materialistic dimension of reality, and the fruits without inedible peels represent the most hidden and secret dimension.
Purim is one of the most important Jewish festivals. It celebrates the salvation and freedom of the Jewish Nation from the evil plot of Hamman to annihilate all the Jews during the ancient Persian Achaemenid Empire. The Book of Esther is one of the most essential Hebrew Bible books, i.e. the Jewish Tanakh. Hence, it is a day of grand celebration during which adults and children dress up wearing fancy or funny costumes, and in the synagogues, the Megillah of Esther, i.e. the Book of Esther, is read out loud.
It is also a tradition to organise a festive meal, i.e. seudat Purim, among families and friends. Wine and oznei Haman, i.e. Haman’s ears, never go missing at the tables. The oznei Haman are three-cornered pastries with different sweet fillings. The most popular stuffings are poppy seeds, prunes and apricot jam; additional garnishes are apricot, prune, strawberry, raspberry, chocolate, peanut butter and jelly. Moreover, as a final touch, oznei Haman topping consists of sprinkles or powdered sugar. The triangular shape might come from the three-cornered hat that Hamman wear in old illustrations.
It is a tradition and custom to donate Mishloach Manot, which are Purim baskets containing gifts such as food and drinks packages to neighbours, colleagues, friends, and family members. This custom comes from the Book of Esther, and it is a symbolic way to ensure that everyone has something to eat and drink to share the joy of the miracle of Purim. It is also a way to create and maintain connections inside the Jewish Nation because what always saved Jews from annihilation has been unity.
Passover or Pesach is one of the most fundamental festivals of the Jewish Nation. It commemorates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt after 210 years of slavery. On the first night of Passover, the big meal, i.e. seder Pesach is unique and particular. It is customary to organise it among families and friends, and the most crucial thing during Passover is to never eat chametz, which is food with leavening agents. Hence, bread, pastries, and fermented drinks such as beer are banned. Additionally, Ashkenazim don’t consume kitniyot, i.e. legumes and grains such as rice, corn, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds. The most common Passover recipes are matzot, chicken soup with matza balls, i.e. kneidlach, spring veggies such as asparagus and artichokes, and of course potatoes and gnocchi.
The Passover Seder
It is a tradition to start the Passover seder with a precise sequence of fourteen actions:
- Kadeish is the Kiddush blessing (blessing of the wine) and drinking of the first cup of wine;
- Urchatz is the washing of the hands;
- Karpas is the dipping of the karpas such as parsley or celery in saltwater;
- Yachatz consists of breaking the matzah in two and keeping the afikoman, which is the larger piece of the broken matzah, to be consumed after the meal.
- Maggid consists of retelling the Passover story and drinking the second cup of wine;
- Rachtzah is the second washing of the hands;
- Motzi or Matzo is the blessing before eating matzah;
- Maror consists of eating of the maror, which is bitter herbs such as lettuce;
- Koreich consist of eating a sandwich made of matzo and maror;
- Shulchan oreich is the setting of the table, which consists of serving the holiday meal;
- Tzafun is eating the afikoman;
- Bareich is the blessing after the meal, followed by the drinking of the third cup of wine;
- Hallel is the recital of the Hallel, a prayer recited on festivals, followed by the drinking of the fourth cup of wine;
- Nirtzah is at the seder’s end when everyone sings: “L’shana Haba’ah b’Y’rushalayim”, which means “Next Year in Jerusalem!”.
The Passover Seder Setting
Silverware is commonly used at the table settings, and the attendees are usually dressed fancy as in the Jewish custom regarding all the holidays, including Shabbat. It is also a tradition to invite known and unknown guests to the meals and needy people.
The ke’are is the special Passover plate, which is divided into six sections. Indeed, each of the six food symbologies different traits of the Jewish Pesach, which are:
- Maror or bitter herbs, which symbolise the anguish and oppression of the slavery of the Jewish Nation in Ancient Egypt. The typical maror is horseradish;
- Chazeret is usually romaine lettuce, but there are also other bitter lettuces such as endive, green onions, dandelion greens;
- Charoset consists of a sweet spread of fruits and nuts, and it symbolises the mortar that the Jewish slaves used to build the storehouses of Egypt. Ashkenazi Jews make apple-raisin-based charosets while Sephardic Jews make date-based recipes adding sometimes orange, lemon, or banana;
- Karpas consists of vegetables such as parsley and celery; sometimes, it can also be a cooked potato. Karpas is dipped into salt water (Ashkenazi custom), or vinegar (Sephardi custom) or charoset (Yemenite custom);
- Zeroa is a roasted lamb or goat bone, symbolising the korban Pesach, i.e. the Pesach sacrifices. A lamb was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem and then eaten roasted during the Seder;
- Beitzah consists of a hardboiled egg cooked in a baking pan with a bit of oil. It symbolises the korban chagigah, i.e. the festival sacrifice, which was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem and was then eaten at the Seder night.
After Passover, among the North African Jews, there is the tradition of the Mimouna. It is customary to prepare a mix of flour, honey, milk, and butter. And a famous Mimouna dish is the Mofletta, a Maghrebi Jewish traditional pancake with a honey or jam garnish. Moreover, there are many outdoor gatherings with barbeques and picnics, where the main meal is salads, barbecued meat, and regular bread.
In the summer, Jews celebrate the harvest festival of Shavuot, on the occasion of the new grain harvest, mainly wheat, the ripening of the first fruits, and it is the period of milk abundancy. Hence, this holiday’s primary food are dairies, such as cheeses, yoghurts, cheese-based pies, quiches or pashtidot, cheese blintzes, and cheesecakes. In old times, the grain harvest endured seven weeks, and it was also the season of gladness. In the beginning, there was the barley’s harvesting during Passover, and it ended with the reaping of the wheat at Shavuot.
Among the different ethnic Jewish groups, dairy recipes change:
- Cheesecakes, cheese blintzes, and cheese kreplach are diffuse among Ashkenazi Jews;
- Cheese sambusak, the cheese ravioli kelsonnes, and the cheese-filled pancake atayef are typical of the Syrian Jewish tradition;
- Kahee is a dough that is buttered and sugared, and it is common among Iraqi Jews;
- A seven-layer cake Siete Cielos, i.e. seven heavens, is diffuse among Tunisian and Moroccan Jews.
Celebrations and festive atmosphere are part of the Jewish world. In particular, in Israel, the Jewish festival’s spirit becomes more intense and felt by all Israelis. Food is an essential part of the celebration of each festival.