Mimouna, the holiday of the Moroccan Jews, is a family celebration but also a happening that attracts a large number of politicians - a combination that has assured its legitimacy in Israel. The most common explanation for the origin of the holiday has to do with its name, which people try to anchor in a Jewish religious context. In Israel, the Mimouna has been linked to the birthday of Rabbi Maimon, the father of Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), or portrayed as a festival of emuna (faith), because of the phonetic similarity between the words. Of course, there is a connection to redemption and the Exodus from Egypt because the holiday falls on the day after Passover ends. But, in fact, all these explanations are mistaken.

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" - meaning, "May you have success and good luck."

Why is the table set this way? The answer can be found in the name of the holiday and in the songs traditionally sung on the day. The Arabic word mimoun means luck or good fortune. At the Mimouna celebrations, songs are sung in honor of "Lady Luck." One of them is "Lala mimouna/ mbarka masuda," which means "Lady Mimouna/lucky and blessed." Lady Luck is being feted with a table laden with goodies symbolizing abundance, health, success and good fortune.

A table set out in honor of Lady Luck will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has explored folk customs and traditions over the ages. The prophet Isaiah already mentions one: "But as for you who forsake the Lord / Who ignore My holy mountain, Who set a table for Luck / And fill a mixing bowl for Destiny ..." (Isaiah 65:11). The verse in Hebrew is "Ve'atem-ha'orkhim le'gad shulkhan." This "Gad" is none other than the Babylonian deity, Ba'al-Gad, the god of good fortune. A table is set to appease him.

The prophets of Israel denounced this custom, as they did many other superstitions of the day. The rabbis of the Talmud decried it, too: "Veha'orekh lefaneha (lifnay hayoledet) shulkhan haray zeh meedarkhay ha'emori" (Tosefta Shabbat: 7). One must not "set a table" for a woman after childbirth, they said. This is the way of the Amorites, that is, it's a pagan custom.

In the 15th century, we find written references to a demon named Mimoun, husband to a she-devil named Mimouna. "Claviculae Salomonis," a handbook of magic composed in Spain, probably before the 15th century, mentions a demon, king or god called the "black Mimoun from the Occident." The Occident is North Africa - specifically Morocco. Mimoun and his female partner appear in numerous manuscripts from the 16th century onward.

Mystic roots

But when did the Jews of Morocco start setting tables for them on the day after Passover? The answer may be found in the journals of Jewish travelers. An Italian Jew by the name of Samuel Romanelli, who visited Morocco at the end of the 18th century, witnessed the practice and theorized where it came from: "After dark, as Passover ends, a table is set out with baked goods and people visit one another. Guests eat their fill and bestow blessings on their host. What is the origin of this custom? Perhaps it is connected to the practice of setting a table for Gad." Romanelli easily made the association between the Mimouna and this biblical-era custom.

Benjamin II, the pen-name of a Jewish traveler who visited Morocco around 1852, mentions the night of al-Mimoun. In 1772, two other travelers, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (the Hida), and Elkana Bar Yeruham, write that "Isru-chag" - the day after Passover - was considered a vulnerable time, and it was customary to have a feast in order to ward off the Evil Eye. Hence the need to appease the demons of chance, Mimoun and Mimouna, on this particular day.

The roots of the Mimouna holiday can also be traced to the rituals of the Gnawa, a mystic sect in Morocco whose music influenced many musicians in the West. The Gnawa conduct ceremonies once a year that start with a parade and end in ecstatic dancing. Their songs are addressed to the goddess Mimouna and her partner, Sidi Mimoun. Among the Gnawa, too, the appeal to Lady Luck is an attempt to mollify her.

One of their songs goes something like this: "Here she comes, Lady Mimouna / Here she comes, Lady Fortuna / Bringing joy to all and sundry / With her bounty / We never go hungry / Candies, cakes and drinks galore / Pleasure and gladness lie in store/ Mimouna, beloved / Your sun cures our ills / Shining down upon the hills / Lovely, grinning ear to ear / Visit us, Mimouna, every year."

Notwithstanding the vast differences between Moroccan Jewry and the Gnawa, the figure of Lady Luck was adopted by the Jews. On the other hand, Sidi Mimoun, whose name cropped up in amulets, kabbalistic texts and incantations, gradually disappeared, leaving only his female partner behind.

Another Mimouna custom in the Moroccan Jewish community involved wading into a body of water. In Casablanca, the custom was called "bu haras." The person walked into the water, turned around to face the shore, took pebbles out of his pocket, and tossed them behind his back. Then he recited this verse: "Sir a bu haras, sir a der, siru la'alay" ("Go away, troublemaker; go away, pain; go away, evil spirits"). This ritual of using water to wash away evil is similar to the Ashkenazi Jewish custom of tashlikh, in which one throws crumbs into a body of water to symbolically cleanse oneself of sin. Tashlich was not practiced before the 15th century. The verse recited during the ritual is from the book of Micah: "You will hurl all our sins / Into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19).

The Moroccan Jewish Mimouna was thus a feast day designed to appease a local she-devil, and contained no religious components. In Israel, however, its pagan origins have been ignored. The same is true of the tashlich ceremony. Over the years, both have undergone a process of religious legitimization.

Having said that, there is nothing to keep future generations from investing old holidays with new-old meaning. Particularly worthy of note is that over the generations, Mimouna eve became a night for young people and lovers, as well as a symbol of Jewish-Muslim solidarity. Because the Jews could not keep chametz (leaven) in their homes during the Passover holiday, it was customary to give all their flour, yeast and grain to their Muslim neighbors. These are components that can add to the holiday's attraction, without ignoring its demonological origins.

Yigal Bin-Nun teaches history at the Universite Paris VIII.