By Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
Why do we eat latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly donuts) on Chanukah? The short answer is because the holiday of Chanukah is about the small jar of oil miraculously lasting for eight days and therefore, frying foods in oil commemorates that miracle. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s more to it than that.
Here’s some more background about the Chanukah holiday and the history of its tradition of fried food.
Chanukah celebrates the victory of the Jewish forces, led by the Chashmonaim (AKA, “the Maccabees”), against their Syrian-Greek oppressors. The Jews recaptured the Temple and were able to rededicate the altar, giving the holiday its name (“Chanukah” meaning “dedication”). The menorah in the Temple was relit with a single cruse of ritually-pure oil, enough for just one day, which miraculously lasted eight days, until a new supply of ritually-pure oil could be procured.
The Story of Yehudit, A Chanukah Heroine Wielding Cheese and Wine
Wars involve many campaigns fought on different fronts. The main story of Chanukah is not the only one.
Another campaign of Chanukah involves the victory of Yehudit (Judith) over the enemy general Holofernes. When Holofernes besieged her hometown of Besulya (Bethulia), Yehudit brought the invader salty cheese to eat. When this made him thirsty, she slaked his thirst with wine. Yehudis continued plying her foe with cheese and wine until he became drunk and fell asleep, at which time she took his sword and beheaded him. When Yehudis displayed the head of Holofernes on a pike, his forces became frightened and retreated.
It would appear that the original Chanukah food was a fried cheese pancake, combining the elements of oil (from the “main” Chanukah story) and cheese (from the story of Yehudit). Since then, the practice has diverged into two: a well-known custom to eat fried foods on Chanukah and a lesser-known custom to eat dairy.
How Old Is the Custom to Eat Fried Foods?
The custom to eat fried foods on Chanukah was cited in the 12th century by Rabbi Maimon ben Yosef, the father of Maimonides, and it was already a long-established practice in his day. Regarding Chanukah, he writes that one “should not be lenient with any custom, not even the smallest. We must make every effort to prepare celebrations and foods that will publicize the miracle that God performed for us in those days. The accepted practice is to make ‘sufganin’…This is an ancient custom, because they are fried in oil, to commemorate God’s blessing.”
You will note that the Rambam’s father refers to “sufganin,” the same word as today’s “sufganiyot.” This is an ancient word for sponge cake that can be found in the Mishna and Talmud. (See, for example, Challah 1:4.)
The Spanish discovered potatoes in Peru in the 16th century. (“Discovered” is from an “Old World” perspective; the Peruvians were very familiar with them!) In Europe, it took about 200 years for the tubers to be widely accepted as a legitimate foodstuff. First, they had to climb the ladder from animal feed, to food for convicts, to food for the poor. The latke appears to have materialized as a Chanukah food by the late 18th century.
Latkes vs. Donuts: How Jewish History Shaped What We Eat on Chanukah
While latkes are the food most associated with Chanukah in the United States, in Israel that distinction is held by the sufganiya, or jelly donut.
Donuts date back to 15th-century Germany, though they were originally filled with savory fillings like meat or cheese rather than sweet fillings like custard and jelly. Being expensive to make, donuts were not eaten regularly and did not initially catch on as a Chanukah food. With the import of sugar from the Caribbean in the 16th century, the price dropped and donuts became a much more common treat, especially in Poland. Polish immigrants brought the tradition with them.
Sufganiyot became Israel’s preferred Chanukah indulgence thanks to the efforts of the Histadrut, Israel’s labor union, in the 1920s. Latkes are easy to make in one’s kitchen; sufganiyot are labor-intensive. (Most of us don’t fry our own donuts at home!) The need for ingredients, preparation, transportation, and distribution added up to jobs for the burgeoning country, and the rest is history.
Economic motivations aside, religious symbolism might also make eating sufganiyot on Chanukah preferable to latkes. The blessing recited after eating sufganiyot is called “al hamichya.” As noted, the dedication referred to in Chanukah’s name is the rededication of the Temple’s altar. Of all the blessings recited after eating (of which there are three), al hamichya is the only one that mentions the altar. (See R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Halichos Shlomo.) It’s unclear, however, how much this idea may have contributed to the development of the custom.
Whether one chooses to indulge in latkes, sufganiyot or fried mozzarella sticks, what’s important is that we’re not just using Chanukah as an excuse to go off our diets. Rather, we are celebrating in a fashion appropriate for recognizing the good that God did for us “in those days at this time.”
Need Chanukah recipes? Browse our Chanukah collection to get new recipes for latkes, sufganiyot, fried food, dairy, and more.