The Spiritual Sufganiya
When you begin to examine things a little deeper though, you will discover there is more to this eclectic mix of tales and customs than a simple child’s story.
By Les Saidel*
In previous years I have written about the origins, culinary virtues and health properties (or lack thereof) of different oils, doughnuts etc. This year I want to aim a little higher, get a little more spiritual and examine the deeper link between oil, the doughnut (sufganiya in Hebrew), freedom and Hanukkah.
Let’s start with the oil, because this is the crux of the matter around which everything revolves. Oil features prominently in Jewish religious rituals from time immemorial. It was a mainstay in the ritual service in the Tabernacle and the later ancient Temples. It was used to anoint the high priests, kings and the holy vessels (incidentally the word used for the inauguration of Moses’ Tabernacle – “Hanukkah” hints at the true nature of this festival). The Torah goes into great detail regarding what type of oil should be used for lighting the Menorah, for baking the various ritual breads – how much oil, whether the oil was spread on top, mixed into the bread, or if the bread was fried in oil, which ingredients were mixed into the anointing oil, and so on.
Oil was synonymous with spirituality, or more specifically – the spiritual holiness of the Torah. The Menorah in the ancient Temple was a conduit through which the light of the Torah was transmitted from the Ark of the Covenant in the inner sanctum to the entire world. For this reason it had to be perpetually lit so that God’s spiritual blessing would never be interrupted. The Hanukkah twist is the miracle of the Menorah oil that burnt for seven days more than it naturally should have, when the Maccabees reinstated the Temple service after the Greek tyranny.
Next is the sufganiya, that spherical or ringed piece of dough fried in oil traditionally eaten on Hanukkah (and by policemen in the US year round). Contrary to public opinion, doughnuts were not invented by Mr. Dunkin, by Messrs. Kreme Krisp, or even by Hanson Gregory (check Google). Dough was already being baked with and fried in oil by the ancient Israelites in the Tabernacle after the Exodus from Egypt. The book of Leviticus goes into painstaking detail describing the various meal and bread offerings that were part of the ritual service. Some had oil mixed in the dough, others had oil spread over the ready baked bread and some were even fried in oil, for example the murbechet bread. These different methods and techniques were not random – they were an indication of the spiritual level of the bread and the person bringing the offering. The more oil and the higher its visibility, the higher the spirituality it possessed.
The ambience of modern day Hanukkah (in the northern hemisphere at least) is one of cold, rainy weather outside and inside the warm glow of the candles on the window sill, the delectable fragrance of sufganiyot or latkes emanating from the kitchen and the family all gathered together singing and celebrating this festival of freedom from tyranny. If there is one festival universally observed by Jews from all over the world, regardless of their level of observance, it is Hanukkah.
At its essence, Hanukkah is about who we truly are as a people, a light unto the nations, spreading the teachings and the morality of the Torah. This is physically manifested in the Hanukkah candles and in the oil soaked sufganiya, reminiscent of the Menorah and the ritual breads in the ancient Temple. We sing and rejoice as we celebrate freedom from oppression, remembering our golden age as a nation during the reign of King Solomon and yearn for the Messiah to reinstate us to our former glory.
*See Breads of the Beis HaMikdash
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife Sheryl and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Jewish Baking Center (www.saidels.com), that specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health, nutrition and authentic Jewish bread.