As any Adam Sandler fan knows, Hanukkah is “the festival of lights” made up of “eight crazy nights.” During these evenings, Jewish people all over the world gather together to light the Menorah and eat some fried food. That’s right: fried food. Oh, you didn’t know one of the staples of Hanukkah was fried treats? Time to get with the program.
“The two foods most commonly associated with Hanukkah are fried latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly-donuts,” says Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher. So, these are the two most traditional Hanukkah foods, but why? Potato pancakes and donuts are mighty tasty, but what do these starchy treats have to do with the wintry holiday?
As with so many fascinating pieces of Jewish tradition, there’s deep symbolism behind the donuts and latkes. Fried foods are traditionally eaten during Hanukkah because of the central place that oil has in the history of the holiday. This oil wasn’t used to cook, though
“Hanukkah celebrates a miracle that occurred in the Second Temple, when, upon returning from battle with the Seleucid army, the priests found only one usable container of olive oil with which to light the temple menorah, or candelabrum,” says Genack.
That oil, which was only enough to last one day, miraculously lasted eight days, until they could prepare more oil for daily use. “As a result, in addition to lighting a menorah in our homes on each night of Hanukkah, it has become traditional to eat fried foods, specifically, latkes and donuts.”
That makes sense, considering that donuts are the kings of all friend foods and only a fool would scoff at a latke. Plus, they’re both kosher, which is necessary for obvious reasons.
That’s not the end of the Hanukkah food connection, though. Some people also eat cheese to commemorate the heroine, Judith, who played a crucial role in the Jewish resistance.
“Tradition tells that she fed an enemy general cheese and wine in order to cause him to become drowsy, whereupon she killed him, saving the day for the Jews,” Genack explains.
The story seems like a warning against cheese, but even in the threat of potential death, a tradition in which cheese is eaten is clearly better than a no cheese ritual. Good call on that one, Jewish leaders.
“As a holiday celebrating religious freedom, Hanukkah, and its traditional foods, have become widely known in our society,” Genack says.
It’s true, since the presidency of George W. Bush, the White House has held a Hanukkah party each year during this time, and now even goes so far as to kosher the White House kitchen in order to provide fully kosher fare.