The Deeper Meaning of Hamentaschen
click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​




The Deeper Meaning of Hamentaschen

The Deeper Meaning of Hamentaschen

Rising above evil on Purim.

by

Among the most distinctive features of the Purim festivities are the special pastries known in Hebrew as "oznei Haman," literally "ears of Haman." We may ask why particularly this body part was chosen -- the triangular shape of these cakes could just as easily correspond to Haman's nose. We may also ask why specifically Haman's ears were chosen for this eponymous pastry and not those of some other figure from the Megillah. The answer to these questions will also give us a special insight into the mitzvah of drinking on Purim.

THE HIERARCHY OF SENSATION

Our Sages recognized a particular hierarchy among our main senses, one paralleled in many ways by their symbolism in secular literature.

The lowest sense is that of smell. Biologists consider this the most primitive sense, and it gives us the least detailed information about the object sensed. On the other hand, this sense is the most direct and visceral, and can give us a direct impression of something's essence, an impression not mediated by the object's detailed properties -- which can be misleading. "The eye can be deceived, but the nose knows."

Above this is the sense of hearing. Through language, our sense of hearing enables us to learn endless details about a subject. But language gives us knowledge about something only indirectly. If our source of information is reliable, then our hearing gives us a short cut to knowledge; if it is unreliable, it is the surest route to error.

Above these is sight. When we see something, the entire picture, including all its details, is encompassed in a single glance. If smell is direct but lacks detail, and hearing is detailed but indirect, sight has the ability to integrate the parts with the whole for a complete picture.

THE THREAT OF AMALEK

The Benei Yissachar (Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov, an early Chasidic leader) explains that the particular spiritual danger of Amalek, the arch-enemy of the Jewish people and Haman's infamous ancestor, is to our "da'at," knowledge, which is symbolized by our sense of hearing. We could identify this with the danger that comes from hostile ideologies. The threat of Amalek is not merely a blind hatred of Israel, but rather manifests itself in elaborate doctrines that are contrary to Torah -- sometimes in subtle ways. A person may hear interesting and fashionable opinions and be convinced to conform to them; this ultimately puts him on a collision course with the mission of the Jewish people.

In the words of the Benei Yissachar, "Amalek corresponds to the da'at of the side of evil… And we see that when God gave Moses the mitzvah of wiping out Amalek, He said, 'Write this in a book for remembrance, and put in the ears of Joshua, [for I will surely wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens]' (Exodus 17:14) -- specifically the ears…so that our faith would be in the nature of ears, which correspond to da'at of holiness" (Benei Yissachar Adar III:2).

Consuming the ears of Haman at the Purim meal symbolizes eliminating wicked opinions -- the evil da'at, which is symbolized by the hearing ears. This is the particular spiritual danger of Amalek, who was the progenitor of Haman.

RISING ABOVE THE ROOT OF EVIL

It follows that if we can rise above this threat, drawing our knowledge not from hearsay but rather from a clear view of the larger picture, we will be saved from the threat of Amalek. This insight is implicit in the mitzvah of drinking on Purim.

Our Sages used a somewhat cryptic phrase to transmit the mitzvah to get drunk at the Purim meal: "Michayev inish livsumei befuraya ad delo yada bein arur Haman levaruch Mordechai" -- "A man is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he doesn't know between 'cursed is Haman' and 'blessed is Mordechai'" (Megillah 7b). A careful examination of the phrase shows that it is based on the hierarchy of sensations explained above.

1. The word used for getting drunk is "livsumei" -- literally "to become perfumed." First we overwhelm our sense of smell, the lowest level of sensation.

2. "Until he doesn't know" -- the word for "know" is "yada" which corresponds to the next level, the sense of hearing, as the Benei Yissachar explains.

3. "Between 'cursed is Haman' and 'blessed is Mordechai'" -- this occurs when we rise above the level of smell and hearing, and have a clear view from above. When we rise above the root of evil and perceive the Divine plan in its entirety, then there is no longer any difference between Haman's curse and Mordechai's blessing -- both are part of God's plan for human history. (Note that "arur Haman" - cursed is Haman, and "baruch Mordechai" - blessed is Mordechai, have the same gematria: 502.) This is why God wipes out Amalek's memory from under the heavens (in the verse cited above) -- because above the heavens there is no need for this.

Through the joy and abandon of Purim we do not seek to escape from this world but rather to rise above it. We consume and overwhelm our lower faculties in order to focus on our higher powers of perception, to rejoice in the Divine plan in which the threats and schemes of the wicked are ultimately turned to eternal good.

 

 

Published: February 24, 2004


Give Tzedakah! Help Aish.com create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.

Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Shoshannah, March 24, 2005 12:00 AM

Eliminating da'at through ingestation?

Thank you for this gem of an article! But here's what's been "eating me" since reading: Why do Jews eat hamentaschen, representing eliminating the hearing of evil opinions and knowledge (da'at), by taking that evil INTO our bodies & ingesting it, while other times we are very careful in keeping kosher and NOT taking something "forbidden" into us (maintaining physical holiness or separation)? I find this particularly intriguing after reading the other article which compares/contrasts our fasting on Yom Kippurim to our feasting on Purim. Can someone please explain the symbolism behind why we EAT hamentaschen as opposed to throwing them in a stream of water, for instance? Many thanks!

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.


  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment
stub