Word of the Day Oznei Haman: Ears of a Villain

Is the triangular Purim pastry a depiction of Haman's hat, pocket or ears?

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
Ozney haman
Ozney haman
Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

The miracle of Purim may be how Queen Esther helped save the Jews of ancient Persia, but its culinary counterpart is how one three-cornered pastry manages to represent so many (well, three, actually – one for each corner?) of the Purim villain’s body parts or elements of his attire: Haman’s hat, his pocket and his ears.

The idea that hamantaschen represent Haman’s supposed quasi-Napoleonic hat seems to be a Diaspora concept rather than an Israeli one, since here in the Holy Land the pastries are called oznei haman, meaning “Haman’s ears.” The funny thing is that the children’s song about a tri-cornered hat that this New Jerseyan grew up associating with Purim is actually in Hebrew. Called “Lakova Sheli Shalosh Pinot” (“My Hat Has Three Corners”), the song, embodying the silliness of Purim logic, goes: “My hat has three corners / Three corners has my hat / If it didn’t have three corners / It wouldn’t be my hat.”

But while American children are taught about Haman’s hat, the word they use for the triangular pastry comes from the Yiddish for “poppy seed pocket” (mohn tasch). The similarity between mohn and Haman is bolstered by a pun purporting to strengthen the connection between the pastry and the holiday, according to Mordechai Rosen’s “Milah Berega,” a book on the etymology of about 2,000 Hebrew words. Thus, hamantasch can be read (somewhat awkwardly) as “Haman tash,” meaning, Rosen writes, that “the villain’s power has weakened [tash].”

That still leaves us with the ears, though. Although there has been a lot of speculation that oznei haman is a distortion of hamantaschen, the Hebrew term was used in literature centuries before large waves of Yiddish speakers reached the shores of the Land of Israel, indicating that it may have developed independently of the Yiddish.

Eliezer Brodt writes in his Seforim blog that Italian author Judah Leone ben Isaac Sommo (also called Yehuda Sommo) used the term oznei Haman in the first known Hebrew drama, published in 1550. Called “Tzahut Bedihuta Dekidushin” (“An Eloquent Comedy of a Marriage”), the play has one character asking facetiously how it could be that the Israelites ate Haman’s dead body, since the Book of Esther says Haman was hanged but the Bible also says the Israelites ate haman – meaning “the manna,” the divinely sent food that fell from the sky when they were wandering around in the desert.

Another character responds that, in telling us the Israelites ate the manna, the Torah is instructing us to eat “oznei haman – the biscuits made of flour mixed with oil.”

Jacob ben David Francese (1615-1667), another Italian writer cited by Brodt, also used the Hebrew term, writing in a silly holiday poem: “Purim day is coming, we will prepare delicacies for it / We will make candy concoctions of all kinds / We will grow oznei Haman out of rabbits’ ears.” (See Masekha for more on the connection between Italy and Purim.)

There is actually a connection between the Purim story and Haman’s ears. The Book of Esther states that after Haman was forced to parade his archenemy Mordecai around town on the king’s horse and wearing the king’s garments, he “hasted to his house, mourning and having his head covered” (6:12). A midrash on that verse adds “oznav mekutafot,” which literally means his ears hung limply, an idiomatic expression similar to “with his tail between his legs,” said of someone defeated and disappointed. Apparently, Haman’s ears hung low and they wobbled to and fro.

Whether you like your Purim pocket pastries stuffed with poppy seed, or prefer fruit preserves or chocolate, if you eat too many of them – be it in the desert or for dessert – you’ll be all ears.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

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