The oldest Hebrew reference to food resembling Hanukkah's staple pastry - the sufganiya, or jelly doughnut - appears in 2 Samuel, but it isn’t called a sufganiya. It is called a leviva, which happens to be the modern Hebrew word for another Hanukkah delicacy - the latke, or potato fritter.
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However, the King James Bible didn’t do a very good job translating the original, writing: “So Tamar went to her brother Amnon's house; and he was laid down. And she took flour, and kneaded it, and made cakes in his sight, and did bake the cakes” (13:8).
For one, the Hebrew makes it pretty clear that the levivot were fried and not baked, but the word for frying pan, mishrat, was unknown to the translators. Yet it's unclear what, exactly, the original levivot were: the word doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Bible or in other ancient texts, except for references to Tamar’s levivot.
The only thing we have to go by is the root of the wordl-v-v, which means heart, and the context - where it appears twice - once as a verb the other as a noun. Tamar “hearted the hearts,” or made heart-shaped balls, and then deep-fried fried them, at which point they were called levivot.
Amnon and Tamar couldn’t have called the doughnuts sufganiyot as we do in modern Hebrew, as the word sfog (sponge) hadn’t come over from the Greek yet. This would only happen after Alexander the Great took over the region. (The Greek word spogiya is also the origin of English word sponge.)
In Hebrew the root also led to the name of a pastry – sufganin. From texts in the Talmud it seems pretty clear that we are talking about deep-fried spongy dough, something like a doughnut (though one reference makes them seem cracker-like).
Got milk with your levivot?
In texts written after the Talmud was redacted (500 AD), the word sufginin and leviva both appear only in references to the respective texts they came from. Then, in early-14th century Catalonia, a poem by Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus mentions both levivot and sufganin as names of foods eaten on Hanukkah. There is practically no hint as to what these foods are in the text but a later poem might offer some clues.
Rabbi Menachem de Lozano composed an extremely long poem in 17th-century Palestine in which he wrote: “Levivot with cheese in Hanukkah and crunchy sufganin.” It would seem that in the Middle Ages sufganin were crunchy, while levivot were made with cheese.
This isn't entirely surprising. During the Middle Ages it became a tradition for Jewish women to eat dairy products on Hanukkah in honor of Judith, the heroine who had become associated with the Maccabees even though she lived hundreds of years before them. According to the story told in the Book of Judith, when infiltrating the enemy camp, Judith, for reasons of kashrut, didn’t eat meat, sticking instead to dairy products.
In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, the tradition of eating dairy products extended to latkes, which were cheesy pancakes at the time. Only in the mid-19th century, when Russian farmers began growing potatoes, did these latkes become the traditional potato pancake we eat today.
Enter the doughnut
The first reference to eating something that can be identified as a kind of doughnut on Hanukkah is in a Moroccan manuscript written in 1780, though it claims that it is quoting the Rambam’s father, Rabbi Maymon. “And the tradition of making sufginin [al-sfindj in Arabic] spread…the tradition of the elders, because they are fried in oil in memory of our blessing.” The spindj is a sweet fried pastry, similar to the modern-day sufganiya.
But how did sufganin turn into sufganiya?
Well, in 1897, the teacher David Yalin translated the "The Vicar of Wakefield," a novel by Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith, into Hebrew. He got stumped when he came to the word shortbread (to this day Hebrew doesn’t have a word for shortbread). So he made up a word – sufganiyot -- based on the sufganin of old.
In 1913, the Committee of the Hebrew Language decided to use Yalin’s word – but for latkes. Some writers actually adopted this -- including Uri Nissan Gnessin and Haim Nahman Bialik, who had proposed esfog.
But in the end the public decided to use leviva for latke, maybe because they sound alike, while sufganiya was used for the doughnut, perhaps because it sounded like sfindj. In 1938, the committee gave in, leading to the switcheroo in names for Hanukkah delights.