A non-Jewish colleague asked me some time ago which, of all the wonderful foods associated with the Jewish holidays, was my favorite. I gave it some thought before responding that while I love the cheesecake we enjoy on Shavuoth and always look forward to the annual matzoh brie breakfasts during the week of Passover, my choice would have to be the head of the boiled carp that graces the dinner table on the first night of Rosh Hashana. “The bulging eyes are particularly tasty,” I added.
The look my colleague gave me was a combination of shock and disbelief, until he realized I was joking and that the fish head was not really my favorite (although I do enjoy nibbling on it). Actually, the hamantaschen of Purim are what I most enjoy while the latkes eaten during Chanukah comes a close second.
I was reminded of this exchange after recently receiving a video of my grandson delighting in a chocolate covered sufganiya. Judging from the smile on his smudged-up face, I’m sure he would have no difficulty identifying his favorite Jewish holiday food. The difference between his favorite and mine, though, is rather startling. The oil-laden sufganiyot (and, of course, latkes) are stark reminders of the miracle we are annually commemorating on Chanukah. They are, in other words, more than merely snacks or side dishes; the oil with which they are made represent the essence of the Festival of Lights. Hamantaschen, on the other hand, are three-cornered pastries that provide no specific reference to or reminder of Purim; there is no definitive explanation as to whether they represent the hat that that Haman wore, the shape of his ears, or his pockets that were, allegedly, filled with bribe money. To be sure, the heroics of Esther and Mordechai are remembered in a number of different ways, including the requirement to participate in a formal meal (Seudat Purim). Odd that no similar requirement has ever been established for Chanukah.
That eating and feasting is an inseparable part of the Jewish tradition. Festive meals are required as part of many ceremonies, including a brit mila (circumcision), redemption of the first born (pidyon ha’ben), and upon completing a tractate of Talmud (siyum masechet), among others. And while it is not an absolute requirement, it is not uncommon for someone who has survived a personal ordeal – such as but not limited to a serious illness or life-threatening accident – to convey his or her gratefulness by inviting friends and family to participate in a seudat hodaya (meal of thanksgiving). So, why is there not one required during the week of Chanukah. Can there be any greater reason to have a seudat hodaya than to commemorate the survival of the Jewish people from the very real threat of spiritual or physical annihilation.
This is not to say that Chanukah dinners are not scheduled throughout the week. On the contrary, the week provides ample opportunity for informal get togethers where candles are lit, dreidels are spun, songs are sung, and, obviously, latkes and sufganiyot are consumed. But these are convened based on free time and opportunity, Unlike Purim, no specific day during the week of Chanukah has been designated for a meal of thanksgiving or to acknowledge the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. An inexcusable oversight if you ask me.
It’s possible, of course, that there was unrecorded thought and discussion to establishing as a positive commandment the requirement to have a festive meal, but agreement regarding the logistics were just too unattainable. We know, for example, that Esther invited both Achashverosh and Haman to a meal, during which she had the evil decree reversed. That meal provides the basis for the requirement for such a meal on Purim. Chanukah, unfortunately, has no similar reference.
In addition, there would surely have been an unresolved debate among the rabbis as to when the meal should be held. Some would have probably taken the position that the meal should be held on the first night, as a way of welcoming the eight-day festival. Others would argue that the meal should be a pleasant reminder of the week that just passed and would best be enjoyed at the time the last candle is lit. So, as it was in Gershwin’s potato/potatah conflict, the whole idea of requiring a festive during Chanukah may very well have been called off.
Chanukah celebrates our national physical, spiritual, and cultural survival against what were most certainly insurmountable odds. While lighting candles throughout the week, nibbling of holiday nosh, and participating in festive-related activities and parties are all well and good, they do not quite convey the appreciation we must show for the three-pronged miracle that we were blessed with. A Seudat Chanukah is conspicuously absent from the halakhot and protocols that are part if the eight days. I hope we won’t have to wait for the arrival of the Mashiach before it before a welcome change will be made.