Mimouna is a holiday that is nowadays celebrated only in Israel. It begins the night Passover ends, and continues the following day. It is a celebration of Jewish North African, and particularly Moroccan, identity and heritage.
The Mimouna consists of two distinct parts. On Mimouna eve, families marking the holiday open their homes to guests and serve an assortment of traditional North African dishes, particularly sweets, featuring above all else a kind of crepe called mufleta. Traditionally the hosts have often dressed in traditional North African garb and play Arabic music. The next day, celebrants often hold barbecue picnics in one of Israel’s city parks or nature reserves.
The Mimouna did not arise in Israel: it began centuries ago among the Jews of North Africa. But this early form of the holiday disappeared after most of the Jews left North Africa in the 1950s. Most settled in Israel. Some immigrant families maintained the tradition of holding a festive family meal on Mimouna evening but these were modest family events, without most of the rich and varied traditions of the holiday in North Africa.
It was only in 1966 that the Israeli Mimouna as we know it today was born, when community organizer and labor movement activist Shaul Ben Simchon organized the first big communal post-Passover Mimouna picnic in Ben Shemen Forest in central Israel.
For Ben Simchon, the event was less a cultural event and more a political tool to unify and galvanize North African Israelis into a political force, which could be used for the benefit of the community, to fight against discrimination and lift its members out of poverty.
A picnic for tens of thousands
This first Mimouna picnic drew 300 attendants, but it was only the beginning. The next year, when Mimouna came around, some 3,000 people came to the celebration picnic Mimounaheld at the Sanhedria Park in Jerusalem, many dressed in traditional garb, carrying tents, picnic blankets, musical instruments and food. Unfortunately, the celebration was cut short. Just as it was starting, it began pouring rain and everyone fled.
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By the next year, nearly ten thousand came to the event, and the year after that twice as many, and then in 1970, 30,000 people attended the central celebration of Mimouna in Jerusalem.
As time went by, more and more smaller-scale events took place around the country as more and more Jews, still mostly Moroccan but increasingly also Tunisians and Libyans, took to the new celebration.
Scandalized in Jerusalem
But not everyone was happy with the form Mimouna had taken. Some rabbis began to grumble about the irreligious character the celebration of the holiday had taken. Starting in 1974, many began to call for the Mimouna to be boycotted, citing scandalous promiscuous behavior at these events.
And it was not just the rabbis who were offended. Some of the North African community’s intellectuals said they found the celebrations embarrassing and believed they were debasing the community by reducing their culture and heritage to rambunctious barbecues featuring loud music and costumes.
After the left-wing labor parties lost power to the right-wing Likud in 1977, thanks in part to many North African Jews switching their party allegiance, the new government stripped Ben Simchon of the organization of the Mimouna celebrations and entrusted Sam Ben Shitrit, a Moroccan-born Likud activist, with the task starting in 1980.
In an interview he gave to the popular daily newspaper Ma’ariv, published the day before the first Mimouna he organized, Ben Shitrit said there had even been thoughts of canceling the public aspect of the Mimouna outright because it had come to feature “Mimouna-anomalous behaviors” over which the organizers had no control. “The media, especially television, pounced on the unusual activities like treasure… A woman standing on her head was an attraction for the cameramen,” he explained. Mimouna had become too much like a “chinga,” Ben Shitrit said, that being slang for a raucous open-air celebration.
Ultimately they decided not to abolish the community Mimouna because it had already taken root and they didn’t want to disappoint the community, he explained. “We decided to completely change the character of the Mimouna, and to express with it our heritage and culture with the participation of the authors, researchers and educators of the North African community,” he said.
The complete character change Ben Shitrit instated involved shifting the focus from the festivity of Mimouna day to the celebration the night before.
“Tomorrow, with the ending of the holiday (of Passover) 100,000 homes of North African Jews will renew an ancient tradition: An open house, a set table and a family awaiting its guests,” he said – and gradually, so it was. To a degree.
Over years, his efforts were successful and the spotlight did shift from the day of the holiday to indoor celebrations the previous evening, though an outdoor barbecue on the day itself remains popular to this day.
So far its recent history. But how did Mimouna begin in the first place?
Enter the demon king, or not
As the holiday gained popularity, Israeli researchers began to search for the origins of the Mimouna. The first to publish an article on the subject was Isaac Einhorn, a researcher of North African Jewry, who in 1971 claimed that “the Mimouna was a celebration in the honor of Maimon, a great king of the kings of demons.”
Einhorn based his theory partly on the similarity between the name Mimouna and a demon mentioned a few times in Jewish Medieval writings called Maimon, and partly on the earliest account of the holiday, described by the Jewish-Italian traveler Samuel Romanelli. He visited Morocco in the 1780s and described his stay there in his book Massa’ ba-’Arab (“Travail in an Arab Land”), published in 1792. “On the night the holiday [Passover] ends they [Moroccan Jews] set their table with different kinds of treats and visit one another. The guests eat whatever they want and bless the owner of the house.”
Romanelli goes on to ask “Who will tell us what this is about?” and provides a guess, musing that they may be setting the table for the ancient Semitic god of fortune Gad mentioned in the Book of Isaiah: “But ye that forsake the LORD, that forget My holy mountain, that prepare a table for Fortune (Gad)” (65:11). The word maimon in Arabic means “good fortune.”
Einhorn’s article was met by harsh criticism from two other, more prominent, researchers of North African Jewry, Haim Ze’ev Hirschberg and Issachar Ben-Ami. In 1972 Hirschberg wrote that Einhorn’s conclusions were hasty and that the matter required further examination. Ben-Ami was more specific, writing that while it is true that Moroccan Jews conducted many rituals related to demons, Mimouna was not one of them. According to Ben-Ami, food given to demons would have been thrown away to a place the demon may enjoy it far off from them, and no Jew would partake in a meal with an ethereal demonic presence, as Einhorn intimated.
Ben-Ami further wrote that while Einhorn focused only on the set-table aspect of the holiday, he ignored the many other rituals involved in Mimouna that did not seem related in any way whatsoever to a cult of a demon, or to an attempt to ward one off. These rituals included an early-morning dip in a river or spring, gathering in nature or at a farm and performing a benediction on trees in a minyan (a quorum of ten men), decorating of the home with sheaves of wheat and flowers, admitting visitors, Jews and gentiles alike, as guests, and more.
Despite these objections, in 2008, another researcher, Yigal Ben-Nun, published an article repeating Einhorn’s arguments with one major change – the demon in question was not Maimon but his wife Mimouna.
Though it is possible that indeed the long-lost origin of Mimouna is some ritual involving a demon, the objections presented by Hirschberg and Ben-Ami still hold, and thus Einhorn’s theory remains unfounded.
In what follows I’d like to present a different theory on the origins of the holiday, in which no demons are involved, but instead a complex of different influences and ideas merged to create the holiday that was celebrated in North Africa.
When a Jew sins
I suggest that Mimouna began as a festive family meal on the night Passover ends. People who abstain from bread the week of Passover knows how much one craves bread when the holiday ends, as the long lines outside bakeries and pizza parlors in Israel every year can attest.
This in and of itself would be enough to create a custom for having a festive family meal immediately following Passover, but there is another likely contribution to the gathering beyond a shared yen for gluten.
The Talmud quotes an otherwise unknown rabbi, Yoanan HaMakkoti, saying, “With regard to anyone who establishes an addition [issur] to the Festival on the day after the Festival by eating and drinking, the verse ascribes him credit as though he built an altar and sacrificed an offering upon it, as it is stated: ‘Add [isru] to the Festival with fattened animals [ba’avotim] until the horns of the altar’” (Sukkah 45b, translated by William Davidson).
Put simply, Jewish Law itself, via the agency of Yoanan HaMakkoti, recommend holding a festive meal on the night Passover ends. And indeed, the earliest mention of a celebration on Mimouna comes to us from Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, whose father was Moroccan, in his book Moreh Ba’etzba’ published in 1794. He writes that it is a tradition to hold a “nice feast” on the night Passover ends.
Over time, this festive meal was likely influenced by the traditions of the North African Jews’ non-Jewish Berber neighbors, who hold a variety of holidays around the same time as Passover. It is not an extraordinary notion: the form of other Jewish holidays have been influenced by the Christian holidays of their neighbors (Purim by Carnival, Hanukkah by Christmas, and more). Among the customs Mimouna has in common with Berber springtime holidays, are going out to nature and holding picnics, picking greenery and flowers and using these to decorate the house, the eating of a special couscous dish for the holiday, as well as sfinj (a kind of donut) and crepes (mufleta); and the central place of dairy products and milk in particular in the Mimouna holiday meal (which are traditionally non-fleischig).
Once North African Jews began going out for nature hikes the day after Passover, this created opportunity to perform another Jewish custom, that of reciting a benediction on a flowering tree as the Talmud instructs (Berakhot 43b). Originally this was to be performed anytime one sees a tree flower but later generations of rabbis decreed that one must perform the benediction annually during the month of Nisan (the month that Passover and Mimouna are in).
Originally the benediction was supposed to be recited as early as possible in Nisan. But in some North African Jewish communities, this was done on the day of Mimouna. Furthermore, it was the custom there not just to recite the benediction on one’s own but in a minyan (a quorum of at least ten men). This was likely due to the influence of Lurianic Kabbalah that began to spread among Jews in the 16th century. According to this mystical traditions some trees are reincarnated sinning Jews and the reciting of the benediction by a minyan of Jews could release them from their vegetative punishment so that their souls are admitted to the divine presence.
Since most North African Jews didn’t own orchards of their own, they would probably have to ask their neighbors for permission to visit their orchards and perform this task.
Anthropologists and sociologists who studied Berber society in the early 20th century found that many Berbers held deeply-rooted anti-Semitic views, among them the contention that Jews were unusually smelly and ritually impure. But the Berbers also expressed their belief that Jewish prayers for rain were more effective than other prayers and that having a Jew walk through one’s field leads to a bountiful harvest.
It is logical then that non-Jewish owners would vie with one another to have this special once-a-year quorum of Jews bless one of their trees. They might have even taken the unusual step of visiting a Jewish neighbor and perhaps even offer them a bribe. And this might be how the tradition of holding an open house on the eve of Mimouna originally began; it may also explain the tradition of placing a bowl of gold and jewels on the table, which may stand in for gifts once given by non-Jewish owners of orchards and fields.
And then there’s the matter of the name of the holiday, Mimouna. This seems to be a later development: the first known record of the holiday’s name appears in J. J. Benjamin’s “Eight Years in Asia and Africa (from 1846 to 1855)” (the English edition was published in 1859). He says the eve of the holiday is called Lel-el-Maimun, Arabic for “Night of Good Fortune.”
The name might stand just for that a night of good fortune on which, Jews are fortunate to have gentile neighbors appear at their doorsteps with gifts in hand, while for these visitors this was a night on which they went to pander to their Jewish neighbors in the hope that they visit their orchard the next day and in doing so bring them good fortune - maimun.