Everyone knows we eat sufganiyot (Jelly Doughnuts! Пончики! Berliners! Pączki!) on Chanukah because they’re fried in oil, and the miracle of Chanukah took place with the oil.[i] They’re delicious, they annoy healthy eaters, boom – a custom.
This explanation is good, like all simple explanations. And like all simple Torah explanations, there is much swimming beneath that surface layer of puddled grease. But before that, how about this?
Chocolate-Filled (With a Side of Halva)
I once heard this from one of my teachers in Yeshiva, who ostensibly read it in a book of vertlach. It is hard to explain what a book of vertlach is. It’s like frum finger food, a kind of scholarly dim sum. Rather than rigorous (and therefore usually correct) examination of the sources, a good vort instead asks a perennial or unusual question, sketches one or two elegant connections, and sticks the landing, drawing it all together by the end of the page.
Instead of ornate gates of wisdom or vast pillars of reasoning, the vort is a single gem you can put in your pocket. They’re perfect for sharing at the Shabbos table or when you meet your friend in the street. Everyone should know a few. They make people smile, they’re genuine Torah study, and they often exhibit a certain nimble creativity that longer explanations can’t manage.
Why do we eat sufganiyot on Chanukah? According to Jewish law, all non-fried foods made of the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye) can be considered bread if prepared in a certain way or eaten in the right amount. Fried foods, however, can be eaten in any amount without becoming bread, since they are not baked.
Now, there are three types of blessing said after eating, depending on the food: The long Grace After Meals (Birchat Hamazon), the medium-length Me’ein Shalosh, and the short Borei Nefashot. The long Grace After Meals is generally said after full meals with bread, whereas the short Borei Nefashot is said after snacks. The middle after-blessing, Me’ein Shalosh, is said after eating food made of the five grains that are not bread.
In addition, of the three after-blessings, only Me’ein Shalosh, mentions the altar in the Temple (“Al Mizbechecha“).
Since Chanukah is, first and foremost, a celebration of the dedication of the altar (Chanukat HaMizbeach), it is fried doughnuts, which can never have the full Grace After Meals as their after-blessing, that allow us to thank Hashem for the miracle every time we eat them. L’chaim.
A vort! Savor and enjoy the Torah sprinkled like the sugar of the supernal Confectioner! Do not wonder why we do not then eat pomegranates on Chanukah, since the seven species of Israel (and wine!) also have Me’ein Shalosh for an after-blessing, and would have us thanking G-d for the altar just as much. Do not ask why we also eat latkes on Chanukah, if their after-blessing is the pedestrian Borei Nefashot that does not mention the altar at all. Neither of these are in the spirit of the holiday. It is much better to respond with the counter-vort I just thought up: that it’s the mention of the altar in Me’ein Shalosh which obviates the need for an addition to that prayer in honor of Chanukah.[ii]
Now, back to the grease.
If the miracle of Chanukah was oil burning for eight days when it should have burned for one, why do we eat oily foods? We should just eat oil.
You might be thinking that sounds gross. The Talmud would probably agree, since it goes further: A glass of pure olive oil has no blessing at all, since it’s not considered food and is even damaging to one’s health.
That the body does not deal well with pure oil makes perfect sense in light of the story of Chanukah as illuminated by Chassidus.
The short version: Oil is wisdom, the innermost part of everything that can only be revealed by squeezing and crushing, the negation of the self and acceptance of the object of our thought into our reality in order to properly grasp it. Understanding can arise through my analysis of the matter, but wisdom (Chochma) arrives when I disappear and in my head only the thing I’m thinking about remains, perfect and whole, a vision of the other, a flash of insight.
The Seleucids and their leader Antiochus ransacked the Beit Hamikdash and profaned all of our sacred oil, just as the beauty and power of Hellenism arrived in the holy land and declared Jewish wisdom just another wisdom, another culture, something to be subsumed in the all-embracing weltanschauung of Aristotle, the Olympics[iii], and the subtle and complex idolatrous pantheon.
Indeed, whereas Purim as a holiday celebrates the Jewish survival of an actual mass-genocide plot in Persia, Chanukah celebrates the survival of Jewish wisdom – in short, of our Torah – in the face of Greek culture (and the force eventually used to try implementing it). Chanukah is a celebration of Torah qua Torah, of the gall of the Jewish people to say we know something not as a third-person universally-accessible philosophy but as a personal covenant with the Creator of heaven and earth. That is what the Maccabees fought for.
Antiochus and the Hellenists[iv] almost won. Nearly all the oil in the Temple was profaned. The Maccabees, however, had a secret weapon: their deep reserves of self-sacrifice, a part of their Jewish souls that refused to concede to even overwhelming odds, and refused to bow down even when Jewish law may have advised life-saving prudence. Their souls were not, in that instance, bound by Jewish law, the Jewish law rationalized and desacralized by the Greek influence. Their commitment to G-d could not be rationalized, and in this, the Maccabees taught something to the Torah itself. They tapped into a small jug of oil that could not be ruined, sealed by the High Priest, immune to the tampering of Antiochus. And from that one small jug, the oil within the oil, the deepest of all Jewish wisdom, came light for eight days.
That is the oil we wish to eat, to incorporate within ourselves, for these eight days.
And yet, pure oil is not food. It is not for daily consumption; to live on it is truly to exist in a miraculous state, to sustain oneself on one’s soul alone. To eat that oil, we must enclothe it in vessels; once the Maccabees were successful, the Hasmonean kings passed into history, whereas the lessons they taught the Torah live on. The one jug changed the very nature of all future worship.
So why do we eat sufganiyot on Chanukah?
We eat oil on Chanukah.
Doughnuts are just the vessel.
[i] An association going back not to the Israeli Histadrut (Time Magazine – though what a clever way to create jobs for workers!) but much earlier, to the extent it was mentioned by the Rambam’s father, Maimon (born c. 1110).
[ii] Do NOT question (you monster) why Purim also had no addition in Me’ein Shalosh.
[iii] We pay back the sacrifice of the brave Maccabean rebels against Antiochus and the Hellenists by naming our modern Jewish Olympics “Maccabiah.”
[iv] A great name for the Maccabeats’ sarcastic punk nemeses (someone, please).