Rav Dovid Feinstein: The Custom of Latkes is Not What People Think

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rav-dovid-feinstein1There is a widespread custom to eat fried foods on Chanukah to commemorate the miracle of the oil in the Bais Hamikdosh. It is thus common to eat fried sweetened donuts. Many people eat potato pancakes, or latkes.

Most people assume that the custom to eat potato latkes comes from the custom to eat foods made with oil. Rav Dovid Feinstein, rosh yeshiva of Mesifta Tiferes Yerushalayim in New York City, says that this is a misconception. Rather, the custom stems from the custom to eat milchige foods on Chanukah to commemorate the heroic act of Yehudis, a daughter of the Chashmonaim, who fed cheese to the leader of the Greeks. The general was made thirsty by the cheese and began to drink much wine. When he grew quite drunk, she cut off his head. For this reason, Jews eat cheese delicacies on Chanukah. Originally, latkes for Chanukah were made of cheese. Eventually, the custom grew to incorporate eating latkes of all kinds.

But how did the custom evolve?

Rav Dovid Feinstein explained that in Europe, many people did not have cooking oil. Instead, they used chicken fat, or shmaltz. But that sufficed only for meat dishes. When preparing something milchig, women used butter in lieu of cooking oil. On Chanukah, when there is a custom to eat dairy items, it was convenient to prepare something with butter, and since potatoes were a staple food item, the women fried potatoes in butter. Thus, a meal of latkes was naturally a milchige one. Nowadays, pointed out Rav Feinstein, people prepare pareve latkes to be eaten with a fleishige meal on Chanukah, but the custom’s origin was completely different.

{Noam Amdurski-Matzav.com Newscenter}

12 COMMENTS

  1. please clarify. you wrote, “Originally, latkes for Chanukah were made of cheese”. A little later you write, “On Chanukah, when there is a custom to eat dairy items, it was convenient to prepare something with butter, and since potatoes were a staple food item, the women fried potatoes in butter. Thus, a meal of latkes was naturally a milchige one”.

    Was the progression cheese – cheese latkes -potato latkes OR was it butter – fried potatoes in butter – potato latkes in pareve oil?

  2. Just for everyone’s knowledge. This is all beautiful according to the shita (opinion) that the story of Yehudis and the cheese took place on Chanukah. There are Rishonim and many other commentaries that are of the opinion that it took place during the first Bais Hamikdosh (while the story of Channukah took place 210 years into the second. In addition, others opine that it took place many years later during the second Bais Hamikdosh.

    They state that a great nes (miracle) happened to the Yidden, however, it didn’t reach the level where they could make a separate yom tov for it, and they attached it to the Channukah nes.

    Therefore to say that eating latkes is for one reason or the other, one can’t say it is a mistaken reason. We have custome and we have reasons and each one is holy as a tradition in their own right.

    ???? ????? ???? ????? ????

  3. I refer you to the Meshech Chochmoh on the story of Yael who killed Sisrah by “feeding him dairy”. He refers to Yehudis as well

  4. Beutiful history lesson!
    Now the minhag is to eat oil minhagim change. Just like there obviously allways wasnt a minhag to eat milchig items on chanuka (or shavous for that matter) Now there is.
    There is a minhag to eat fried foods as well

  5. According to an article in the Jewish Chronicle, sufganiyot became popular due to marketing: ” Gil Marks, a food historian who is currently writing an encyclopaedia of Jewish food, says that the story of doughnuts versus latkes began in the 1920s. The trade union of Jewish workers in Mandate Palestine was concerned that Chanucah provided very few commercial opportunities. “Chanucah did not really have too many traditional foods, and latkes are home-made and so are useless for business.”
    According to Marks, the trade union was instrumental in making the doughnut, rather than the latke, the national Chanucah food. They seized on the tradition of Chanucah doughnuts and encouraged bakeries across the country to sell them. “Most people won’t make them at home and they can generate weeks of work for bakers, people transporting them, and sellers.” “

  6. By the way the reason we eat Sufganiyot is so that we can make an Al Hamichya and say V’al Mizbichecha as a remez to the Chanukas Hamizbaiach.

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