Mimouna, a Unique Moroccan Jewish Tradition
Mufletta and other holiday confections
Imagine for a second a world in which you are counting down the hours until Passover is over, and you’ll soon be able to satiate your cravings for chametz (leavened bread and other food prohibited on Passover) once again. It’s been a long and arduous week, yet you survived the matzah, and instead of heading straight for the local bagel shop, 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.
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 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.
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 chametz, 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.
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.” (Haaretz, 4/8/07)
In modern Israel, Mimouna has been traditionally celebrated by Moroccan and Mizrahi Jews in large festive public celebrations the day after Passover. Jerusalem’s Mimouna celebration brings crowds of nearly 100,000, whom cram into a public park to celebrate by barbecuing and eating the traditional, sweet, pancake-like treat known as mufletta,. Politicians participate, too, as Mimouna is a great opportunity to celebrate Moroccan Jewish culture in Israel. In fact, Mimouna has become known as the holiday of the Moroccan Jews, 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.
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.
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.