The Long-lived Jewish Relationship With Chocolate

Unmarried Jewish women no longer dance in vineyards on Tu B'Av, which today has become a local Valentines Day celebration of roses and chocolate.

On the first day of the grape harvest in ancient Jerusalem, dated on the fifteenth of the month of Av, Jewish unmarried women would wear white dresses and go dancing in the vineyards and fields surrounding the city. The Talmud says that bachelors would come and watch the girls in their dance, choosing the one they’d like to marry (and the other way around, I hope), and happy couples were engaged.

Tu B’Av, which literally means the fifteenth day of month of Av, has since evolved into the holiday of love and it starts at sundown today. In modern Israel Tu B’Av has become the local celebration of Valentines Day, meaning no more dancing in vineyards, but more roses, red hearts and plenty of chocolate.

Not that there’s anything wrong with chocolate. In fact, as it turns out, Jews have a long relationship with chocolate. It began with the significant role Conversos (the Spanish term for converted Jews and their descendants) played in enabling Christopher Columbus’s cruise to the New World; a cruise that not only revealed America to the rest of the old world, but, more importantly, led to the discovery and introduction of chocolate to Europe in 1502.

Later, In the Colonial period, “Jews such as Aaron Lopez in Newport Rhode Island, the Gomez family in New York, Antonio Méndez Chillón in New Spain, Aaron Colace in Bayonne, France were cacao traders, as were many others,” wrote to me Rabbi Deborah (Debbie) R. Prinz, Director of Program and Member Services at the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Prinz’s book On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao will come out this coming fall.

Cocoa in the 17th century was of great value. “Duarte Castano, operating out of Caracas, exchanged cacao for silver and products desired in Venezuela,” says Prinz. “During one expedition to Veracruz in 1645, he carried twenty-five fanegas (dry measure of about 1.5 bushel) of cacao belonging to Rabbi Benito Enriquez, eight fanegas sent by Pedro de Campos, as well as his own cargo of one hundred fanegas, all on consignment of converso Antonio Méndez Chillón.”

In addition to being chocolate traders and manufacturers from an early stage (some say Jews brought chocolate making to France), during the 17th century Jews used chocolate in important rituals as well. “Crypto-Jews there used chocolate for Kiddush in Erev Shabbat because wine was scarce in New Spain,” says Rabbi Prinz, based on Inquisition records from New Spain. Chocolate drinks in those days were made with water, not milk, so the parve nature of the drink made it suitable for a meat Shabbat meal.

“Chocolate even accompanied meals associated with the beginning and end of the fast of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). For instance Gaspar Vaez broke his 1640 Yom Kippur fast with chocolate, eggs, salad, pies, fish, and olives.”

“During the Inquisition’s hold in New Spain, Jews were outed by chocolate.” Rabbi Prinz says. “For example, in order not to eat on Jewish fast days and possibly be reported by their servants, Amaro Diaz Martarana and her husband would stage a falling out with each other in the middle of the day. When chocolate [drink] was brought to them, they would pretend to be offended and spill it on the servants. They reconciled in the evening.”

An early Jewish chocolate pudding recipe from the first American Jewish cookbook by Esther Levy, 1871, shows a very straightforward attitude toward the art of cooking: “Take one cup of sweet chocolate, one cup of grated crackers, one cup of sugar and five eggs; beat the whites to a snow and the yolks well beaten; then beat them all together for half an hour and grease the tins well; bake in a hot oven.”

It’s a great way to cook, even bake. For how long do you beat the yolks? Until they’re well beaten. How long do you bake the cake for? Until it’s ready, of course. I assume that when it says to “beat them all together” it would refer to the egg whites and yolk plus the sugar, and then just fold the chocolate and crackers in. But the truth is I actually tried to make this cake based on the old recipe. The result – a very low chocolate flavored omelet. Definitely needs some more experimenting. 

This recipe is from Rabbi Deborah (Debbie) R. Prinz, whose book On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao will come out this coming fall.

“I topped this wonderful meringue recipe from our friend Rabbi Marianne Luijken Gevirtz with a chocolate bud... to create a surprisingly tasty cookie.” says Rabbi Prinz. “As our friend Marianne said when sharing this recipe: “Don't peek while cookies are in warm oven!” Yields about 36 cookies.

2 large egg whites
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup chocolate chips, cocoa nibs or both
1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
Pinch of salt (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
30–40 chocolate buds or kisses


1. Preheat oven to 350º. Line a baking sheet with parchment or tin foil.

2. Beat egg whites until foamy. Gradually add sugar and beat until stiff. Gently fold in chocolate chips, cocoa nibs, and nuts. Add salt (optional) and vanilla.

3. Drop in teaspoonfuls onto prepared baking sheet. Cap each cookie with a chocolate bud or kiss.

4. Place pan in the oven; after about 1 minute turn off the heat. Leave in the oven for several hours or overnight. Carefully peel the cookies off the paper or foil using a spatula.