Talk of the Table | The Feast Before the Fast

It once happened in Rome on Erev Yom Kippur that a Jewish tailor went to the market to buy fish. There was only one fish available, but there were two buyers: the tailor and the servant of the Roman governor. Each offered a progressively larger sum until the price reached twelve dinar, which the tailor paid. During the governor’s meal, he asked his servant: “Why did you not bring fish?” The servant replied: “…I went to buy fish, but there was only one available. A Jew and I haggled over it…until the price reached twelve dinar. Would you have wanted me to spend twelve dinar on a fish?” The governor asked: “Who is this Jew?” He sent for him and he was brought before him. He asked him: “Why did you, a Jewish tailor, see fit to eat a fish that cost twelve dinar?” The tailor replied: “Sir! We have but one day during which all the sins that we commit throughout the year are atoned for. Shall we not honor that day when it comes?”—Bereishit Rabbah

It may seem odd to write a food story about Yom Kippur, one of the rare days on which Jews refrain from eating. But growing up in an Ashkenazi-Iraqi home in Israel, I got a chance to see firsthand all the effort and attention put into the food and drinks before and after the fast. As the sages have said, the mitzvah of eating well on the ninth of Tishrei (the day before Yom Kippur) is almost as important as fasting on the tenth. The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law written in 1563, was very clear about the importance of a good meal before fasting: “One who eats and drinks on the ninth [of Tishrei] receives a great reward as if he fasted [on the ninth and the tenth].”

Some, like 16th-century Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, even argued for eating “the equivalent of two days’ food” before fasting on Yom Kippur. Indeed, in many communities around the Jewish diaspora it is customary to eat a large lunch and then a large seuda mafseket, the separation meal, just before the fast begins.

Preparatory eating starts in the morning on the day before Yom Kippur. In some Hasidic synagogues the gabbai (rabbi’s assistant) will hand out slices of honey cake (lekach, in Yiddish) to congregants. According to some traditions, one must ask for a slice: In case God decreed that one would need to beg for a handout during the coming year, asking for food should satisfy the decree.

Feigel challah, or bird-shaped challah, originated in 18th-century Ukraine. (Photo credit: Karine Gracia via Carol Ungar)

Moroccan and Libyan Jews also used to bring sweets to the synagogue on the day before the fast. In Morocco, members of the Jewish community would fry sfenj, flat doughnuts, outside the synagogue and hand them out to the worshipers. In some provincial towns in Libya, Jews would bring their bowls of food to the synagogue and eat together after the morning prayer, wishing each other a happy new year, according to North Africa folklorist Raphael Ben Simchon.

In other Jewish communities, preparation for Yom Kippur meals starts with the ritual of kapparot (atonement, in Hebrew), when a live chicken is twirled over the head of each family member (a rooster for the males, a hen for the females), symbolically passing his or her sins to the poor animal. The prayer accompanying this ceremony asks for the chicken’s death and for the person to be inscribed in the Book of Life. The chicken is then slaughtered according to Jewish law, and while some communities donate it to the poor, in many others, the chicken is used for the pre-holiday meal. Persian Jews traditionally stuffed the chicken with rice and spices (morgh tu-deli), Moroccan Jews served the chicken with couscous, and Ashkenazi Jews made chicken soup.

My Ashkenazi mother, Erela Arnon, remembers her family’s own kapparot ritual from Tel Aviv in the late 1940s and 1950s, a time of austerity in the young State of Israel. “We used to go with my mother to the market on Basel Street, where she chose the best rooster and hen for our family. We brought them home to do the ceremony with my dad, then walked back to the market to have the chickens slaughtered by the butcher and their feathers plucked by a specialist,” she recalled. When they had no money for chicken, they’d use a carp instead, swinging it in place of the chicken. At home, my grandmother would make chicken soup, which she’d serve with kreplach, another pre-Yom Kippur Ashkenazi staple. Kreplach are triangular dumplings, similar to pierogi, stuffed with meat and served in chicken soup. My grandmother used to make the stuffing out of chicken liver mixed with a little ground beef. Kreplach are served, traditionally, whenever the Jewish calendar requires “beating,” since the filling of the kreplach is “beaten” (or ground, which is the same word in Yiddish). In fact, the kapparot ceremony is called shluggen kappores in Yiddish, shluggen meaning beating or hitting.

This happens three times a year: on Yom Kippur, when Jews beat their chests to atone for their sins; during Sukkot, when the leaves of the willow are beaten; and on Purim, when Jews recollect how Haman was beaten. (My grandmother added a fourth occasion for making kreplach—when the meat you cooked turned out badly.)

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Many Yemeni Jews have a dairy meal for lunch on Erev Yom Kippur. “My mother used to treat me with delicious ftout served with samneh and hilbeh,” says Galit Bineth, who lives in Tel Aviv. Ftout is the Yemeni dish made from the traditional salouf flat bread, which is ripped into small pieces, cooked in clarified butter (samneh in Arabic) and seasoned with fenugreek seeds (hilbeh).

“My mother would go to her relative to make the samneh with her,” she added, noting that the relative’s outdoor kitchen turned out to be beneficial for cooking with fenugreek, a delicious yet strongly aromatic spice. “They started by toasting the fenugreek on a skillet, then they’d add the butter and clarify it. The thick and flat salouf was bought at a Yemeni bakery. Then she’d cook a little milk with sugar and the seasoned samneh, and add the salouf pieces in until they were soaked with the liquid.” Many Yemeni cooks also add eggs into the pot and cook it a little longer. Bineth still considers this one of her favorite dishes.

Whether it’s apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, fried food on Hanukkah, Haman’s ears on Purim or matzah for Passover, the food we eat on Jewish holidays is filled with symbolism and adds to the understanding of the occasion. Yom Kippur is no different.

A few hours after the dairy meal, it was time for the meal of separation. It included a starchy side dish, such as potatoes or noodles, then a meat-based soup, such as kar’an, leg-of-lamb and bone soup, served with salouf. David Moshe, an Israeli-Yemeni jeweler and author of the cookbook Disappearing Flavors of the South, told me that the meal ended with dates and white coffee, a lightly roasted blend that keeps its light yellowish shade. “My family comes from Bayhan (a city in western Yemen),” Moshe said. “It was located on the Spice Route, and so their coffee was rich with spices, similar to Indian chai.” The coffee is seasoned with plenty of ginger, cardamon, clove and cinnamon, and sometimes even toasted sesame or toasted partially cooked wheat berries.

(Photo credit: Vered Guttman)

For Ashkenazi Jews, it was all about the kugel. A year-round Ashkenazi favorite, kugel is filling enough for starting or ending the fast. The 18th-century rabbi Jacob Isaac Horowitz taught that “just as one’s respective mitzvot and transgressions are weighed in our final judgment in heavenly courts, so too are weighed all the kugel one ate in honor of the Shabbat.” That should apply to Yom Kippur too.

Another symbolic pre-fast food is found in Carol Ungar’s book Jewish Soul Food: Traditional Fare and What It Means. Eighteenth-century Ukrainian Jews started the tradition of baking a bird-shaped challah (feigel challah, in Yiddish) for the separation meal. Behind it stood the promise in the Book of Isaiah that just as a bird can fly loose from its captors, so will God rescue the Jews from their foes.

Whether it’s apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, fried food on Hanukkah, Haman’s ears on Purim or matzah for Passover, the food we eat on Jewish holidays is filled with symbolism and adds to the understanding of the occasion. Yom Kippur is no different. One thing is for sure: from a twelve-dinar fish to kreplach, ftout and feigel challah, Jews around the world have always made sure that they enter the Day of Atonement with food that is not only delicious, but also meaningful.

MOROCCAN SFENJ DOUGHNUTS

Recipe by Vered Guttman

Sfenj (or sfinge) are free-form doughnuts that originated in Muslim Spain and are popular in the Maghreb. Moroccan Jews make these before Yom Kippur, and they are as simple as they are good.

INGREDIENTS

3     cups all-purpose flour
1     tablespoon instant dry yeast
2     tablespoon sugar, plus more for dipping
1     tablespoon whiskey
1¾ cups warm water
1     teaspoon salt
Corn oil or olive oil or peanut oil for frying

Yields about 16 sfenj

DIRECTIONS

1. In a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, put flour, yeast and sugar and mix with a spatula. Make a well in the center and pour whiskey, water and salt in, then knead for 4-5 minutes. The dough will be very sticky, but don’t be tempted to add more flour to it.

2. Transfer dough to a lightly greased large bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let stand for an hour or until dough doubles in volume. Pinch dough to deflate it, then let rise again for another hour. Some may even repeat this process for a third time.

3. Fill a deep frying pan with ¾ inch of oil, cover, and bring to 325 degrees over medium heat (this may take about 10 minutes.) Test oil temperature by dropping a piece of dough into it. The oil should simmer gently around it.

4. Line a large tray with double layers of paper towels.

5. Grease your hands with a little oil. Take a piece of dough the size of a Ping-Pong ball, roll it into a ball, then use your fingers to shape it into a ring-shaped doughnut and gently drop it into the oil. Repeat with three more sfenj. Use a tablespoon to drop hot oil on the upper side of each sfenj, and when the bottom is golden, flip it over and cook the other side until golden. Traditionally, a wooden skewer is used to flip the sfenj. When the sfenj are ready, transfer them to a tray and continue with the rest of the dough.

6. Put ½ cup sugar in a medium bowl and dip each sfenj in sugar to coat both sides. Arrange on a platter and serve immediately.

CHICKEN-LIVER KREPLACH

Recipe by Vered Guttman

Kreplach are Ashkenazi dumplings, similar to Russian pelmeni, that are stuffed with either potato or meat, most often chicken liver. They are usually served in chicken soup.

If you keep kosher, you need to first kasher the chicken liver. You can find the instructions online.

Schmaltz is a rendered chicken fat. It is available frozen at kosher supermarket and some chain supermarkets.

Yields 36 kreplach

INGREDIENTS

For the kreplach dough:

2½  (12½ oz.) cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

5 oz.    hot water (not boiling)

1           large egg

2          tablespoons mild flavor oil

¾        teaspoon kosher salt

For the filling:

12 oz.   chicken liver

4       tablespoons schmaltz or oil

1       large yellow onion, finely chopped

1       teaspoon kosher salt

½     teaspoon black pepper 

To cook:

6       cups chicken broth

DIRECTIONS

1. To make the dough, put all dough ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook and knead for 7 minutes. Stop the mixer and use a spatula to scrape the flour as needed. If the dough is sticky, add 1 or 2 tablespoons flour and continue to knead. Remove from the mixer, cover bowl with kitchen towel and let stand for 20 minutes at room temperature.

2. To make the filling, remove any connective tissue from liver. See note above about kashering the liver.

3. Melt schmaltz or oil in a large nonstick pan over medium-high heat and sauté onions until golden-brown, about 20 minutes. You may need to reduce heat to medium after a few minutes, if the onion seems to get too brown too soon. Transfer onions to a bowl. Put pan back on medium-high heat.

4. Now add chicken liver to the pan, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper and sauté until it’s cooked on the outside and pink inside (if you have a thermometer, the liver should reach 165 degrees F.) Transfer to the bowl with the onions. Let sit until liver has cooled down.

5. Transfer liver mixture to a chopping board and chop liver and onions with a large knife. Transfer back to bowl.

6. Bring a wide and deep pan filled with broth to boil over medium-high heat, then cover pan, reduce heat to low and keep on low simmer until kreplach are ready.

7. Have a cup of water next to you. Lightly dust the countertop and rolling pin with flour. Divide dough into two, keep one half covered in the bowl and roll the other half into a very thin rectangle, about 1/16 of an inch. Use a knife to cut the dough to 3-inch squares. You’ll get about 18 from each half.

8. Spoon chicken liver mixture in the center of each square. Use your finger to wet the edge of the dough, then fold into a triangle and pinch to seal. Repeat with the rest of the dough.

9. Gently drop kreplach into simmering salted water, bring back to boil, then cook for 4-5 minutes. Do not overcrowd the pan with kreplach. 

10. Remove kreplach using a slotted spoon and transfer to a tray, making sure kreplach do not touch so they won’t stick to each other. You can serve them with a drizzle of oil and fried onions on top, or in chicken soup.

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Opening image: Chicken Vegetable Couscous, Recipe can be found at ToriAvey.com

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3 thoughts on “Talk of the Table | The Feast Before the Fast

  1. Michelle Gutmann says:

    What is pictured- looks like a curry or vegetable dish (maybe w/ tofu or chicken) w/ chickpeas- & do you have a recipe for it? I don’t think it’s described in the article.
    Thanks for your help.

  2. Anshel says:

    A very nice article. Thank you.
    One comment about Kreplach. I do not think they are similar to Russian pelmeni. Not at all as the matter of fact. They are very similar to Ukrainian vareniki. Both in shape and filling.

  3. Davida Brown says:

    To begin with, I would like to say I loved the bird shaped Challah with accompanying Bible verse! The other word I would like to speak is a somber one, indeed. In the Torah, in Leviticus 17:11 God states: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life.” Afterwards, the scriptures explain that this is also why it is so important to not eat the blood. These scriptures are pointing out a very important consequence as well as one of the most holy commands in the entire Bible. Nowhere does it allow chicken or fish blood to atone for sins, not even symbolically. Neither does prayer nor giving alms (giving to the poor) atone. There is no altar today and hasn’t been for two thousand years, so you might ask how can you fulfill the commandment. YOU CAN’T! HE DID.

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