By Chazzan Daniel Benlolo
Shaare Zedek Congregation
One of the noticeable things amongst Ashkenazi (Western and Central European) Jews and Sephardi (from the Iberian Peninsula before the expulsion in 1492) Jews today is the differences of customs and sensibilities.
One contentious issue concerns foods on Passover. Sephardim have numerous distinct foods on Passover, which Ashkenazim would be happy to partake. However, a divisive custom between Ashkenazim and Sephardim is regarding the eating of legumes (kitniyot) on Passover. Traditionally, Sephardi Jews eat legumes and Ashkenazi Jews refrain. This difference in diet on Passover has become one of the most symbolic identifying factors between these two cultures.
What is the source of the disagreement?
Maimonides writes that the prohibition against Chametz (leavened food) applies only to the five species of grain. They include wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt. However, kitniyot – e.g. rice, millet, beans, lentils and the like – do not become leavened. Even if one kneads rice flour with boiling water until it rises like dough that has become leavened, it is permitted to be eaten. This is not leavening but rather the decay of the flour. Note some Sephardi traditions do not apply adhere to this principle.
The reason is due to the concern that grain of the five species might become mixed together with the rice or other grains (Kitniyot) and when cooked together will become a mixture of Chametz. Another reason is one might confuse the law regarding the five species of grain, since grains of kitniyot look similar to the five species.
There is yet another tradition. When Passover ends, in my home as well as in most Moroccan households, we do not just quietly unpack our chametz. Instead, we celebrate the Mimouna. This joyous festival is believed to have originated in Fes, Morocco. It begins at nightfall with the conclusion of Passover.
Every member of my family gets dressed in their holiday finest. Tables are set with white tablecloths bedecked with flowers, green stalks of wheat, pitchers of milk and wine, eggs, dates, honey, assorted fruits, vegetables and sweets. The night’s activity consists of visiting home after home, singing songs, exchanging greetings and blessings, and sampling a token food at each house – even in frigid Montreal weather. At each stop the head of the household blesses the guests. There is also significance to the order of the visitations. People first go to the leaders of the community, then to their parents’ homes and then to other homes in their neighbourhood.
Interestingly, the Jews of Marrakesh, Morocco, have another special custom. They prepare some of the dishes with wine saved from Elijah’s Cup, as well as any wine left over from the Four Cups. In many parts of Morocco, there is a custom not to eat dairy products during Passover.
In contrast, the Mimouna features dairy products, a special post-Passover treat. Among the many food items, two are of note. Flour, which is quaffed down with a sip of milk, decorated with bean pods and five coin. Is not only a sign of prosperity, but also a powerful symbolical return to chametz. The other unforgettable dish is Mufleta – a crepe like pancake, smothered with butter and honey and rolled up like a cigar.
This is also the time for young people to initiate courtships. Already engaged bridegrooms send precious ornaments to their future brides and dine with their future in-laws.
The origins of this celebration are not clear, but there are many suggestions. Some link it to the Hebrew/Arabic word mammon, which means “wealth and money.” It was believed that one’s prosperity would be determined on that day. There are some who believe that the source of the name is Maimon, the father of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon – better known as Maimonides), and that the day of the Mimouna marks the date of his birth.
In the Moroccan tradition, the period of mourning associated with the counting of the Omer does not start until after the Mimouna celebrations. So the Mimouna involves much jollity including Moroccan music, energetic dancing and ululating from the women.
In Israel, the Mimouna has become a popular annual happening featuring outdoor parties and picnics, proving that this festival – so rich in symbolism and joy – has a universal appeal.
In conclusion, no matter what traditions and customs may disconnect or unite us, it is the knowledge we gain from each other, the joyous times we share with one another and the path we forge together for a better tomorrow.
To experience firsthand the authentic traditions of Mimouna, Shaare Zedek Congregation will be hosting a Mimouna Event on Saturday, April 7, 2018 at 9 p.m.