Mimouna, a Unique Moroccan Jewish Tradition

Imagine for a second that Passover is coming to an end, and you’ll soon be able to satiate your cravings for chameitz (leavened bread and other food prohibited on Passover) once again. Instead of heading straight for the local bagel shop, though, your friends of other faiths have arrived with gifts of cakes, sweet delicacies, and baked goods to celebrate the end of the holiday with you. Together, you feast on chameitz dishes, most with symbolic meaning.

Such was a typical scene at the end of Pesach for the Jews of Morocco – specifically those dwelling in the Mellahs, Morocco’s walled Jewish quarters. The Mimouna festival (pronounced my-moon-ah) was emblematic of respect and coexistence whereby the Muslims of Morocco would reach out to their Jewish neighbors in a gesture of harmony, goodwill, and solidarity.

History

The origins of the holiday are not as clear as some of our other Jewish traditions. There is no biblical mandate or rabbinic injunction as to how one should transition back into eating chameitz, and strangely enough, this is a tradition largely celebrated solely by one community – the Jews of Morocco. It is far less widespread than other ethnic Jewish customs.

Some attribute the name of the holiday to the birthday of “Maimon,” father of the RaMBaM (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon); others make the close etymological comparison to emunah, the word for “faith” or “belief.” It’s most likely, however, that the holiday has pagan roots and came into existence to ward off the demonic figures of Mimoun and Mimouna, to whom we find written references as early as the 15th century

The Order of Mimouna Festivities

Starting in the 1700s, Jews visited orchards at nightfall on the final evening of Passover, saying a blessing for the trees and reciting passages from the Mishnah and Mishlei. Afterward, everyone came together at the table for a massive feast shared with friends, family, and neighbors.

The feasting was a communal affair open to the whole community, Jewish and Muslim alike, though there was an unofficial order to visits: first the rabbi, then the parents, followed by important community figures, and then everyone else. Strangers, too, were welcome.

Early the next day, some families visited the seaside and walked barefoot in the water to recognize the crossing of the Red Sea, traditionally understood to have occurred on the last day of Passover. This ritual was followed by family picnics.

The Mimouna Feast

In prime of place are cakes and sweetmeats – especially the perennial favorite mufletta, a kind of thin, doughy pancake often eaten with honey, syrup, nuts, and dried fruit. As a celebration of spring, fertility, hope, and renewal, the food served is mostly sweet, light, and not very spicy.

Religious symbols are usually present at this meal, especially items that reference the number five – a reference to the hamsa (a hand-shaped amulet that incorporates the image of an eye) and the five books of Torah. Common, too, is the number seven, another auspicious number in Jewish numerology, which represents the seven days of Creation and appears all over the Torah and in gematria (Jewish numerology): The numerical value of the Hebrew word for luck, gad, is seven, and the numerical value of mazal, another word for luck, is 77.

In Haaretz, Professor Yigal Bin Nun explains:

“The Mimouna table offers a hint of the holiday's true origins. It is not set for a family dinner, as usual, but displays an array of symbols that are basically variations on a theme. On this table you will not find typical Moroccan cuisine. It is laden neither with meat dishes nor an assortment of salads.

Instead, it is laid out with items, each of which is symbolic in some way: a live fish swimming in a bowl of water, five green fava beans wrapped in dough, five dates, five gold bracelets in a pastry bowl, dough pitted with five deep fingerprints, five silver coins, five pieces of gold or silver jewelry, a palm-shaped amulet, sweetmeats, milk and butter, white flour, yeast, honey, a variety of jams, a lump of sugar, stalks of wheat, plants, fig leaves, wildflowers and greens.

All are symbols of bounty, fertility, luck, blessings and joy. The traditional holiday greeting fits right in: Tarbakhu u-tsa'adu – May you have success and good luck.” 

How It’s Celebrated Today

Early in Israel’s history, secular Ashkenazi authorities discouraged religious and ethnic traditions, especially from Middle Eastern communities. But by the 1970s, this policy had reversed, and politically active Moroccan-Israelis saw the holiday as an important symbol of their heritage.

In modern Israel, Mimouna has been traditionally celebrated by Moroccan and Mizrahi Jews in large festive public celebrations the day after Passover. Israeli law even requires employers to give employees the day off if they ask for leave to attend Mimouna festivities.

It is popular to host outdoor parties, barbecues, and picnics. At Gan Sacher, the largest public park in the center of Jerusalem, Mimouna festivities draw an average of 100,000 attendees, who celebrate by barbecuing and eating the traditional mufletta. The president and prime minister have even been known to show up to join in!

Mimouna is seen as an opportunity to celebrate Moroccan Jewish culture in Israel, so much so that a promotional video for the celebration has gone viral; it teasingly encourages Moroccan Jews to “adopt an Ashkenazi” with whom to celebrate Mimouna. The video, though intended as a joke, highlights some of the realities of the cultural and ethnic division prevalent among Israeli Jews.

Outside of Israel, Mimouna continues to be less well-known, though it is still widely celebrated in Moroccan and Algerian Jewish communities.

Recent years have seen attempts to revive the old customs of Mimouna and refocus the holiday as an opportunity to champion the coexistence that was once more common in Morocco. The Israel Religious Action Center has created a new Mimouna celebration in Jerusalem and Jaffa, intended to promote a similar style of coexistence amongst Israeli Jews and Arabs.

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This year, wherever you are, invite friends over and close out Passover by connecting to your own roots and to the traditions and customs of others.

Mimouna sameach – happy Mimouna!

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism for Israel and Reform Zionism and is the executive director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

B. Lana Guggenheim is the communications associate for the Union for Reform Judaism.

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