Hamantaschen are sweet triangular pastries with a filling, traditionally poppy seed, eaten on Purim. But where did this tradition originate?
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Throughout the ages, Purim has always been associated with food. The custom of “mishloach manot” – gifting food - is as old as Purim itself, which goes back to around the 4th century BCE, among Persian Jews at least (for most other Jews, Purim dates from about the first century BCE). Holding “seudot Purim,” Purim banquets dates back to the time of the Talmud, roughly from the 5th century.
Given the food-centric nature of Purim, it isn’t surprising that traditional "holiday foods" arose over the ages. One obscure Purim treat that didn’t make it to modern times was a kind of cookie called "ozney Haman" – which is Hebrew for "Haman’s ears."
Don’t be fooled by the fact that Israelis use this name to refer to hamantaschen today. The ozney Haman of yore were a different cookie altogether.
Ozney Haman: The play
We first hear of ozney Haman (singular: ozen Haman) in the Italian Renaissance, in the earliest known Hebrew play - the 16th century "A Comedy of Betrothal". In that, Leone de' Sommi satirizes rabbinic Judaism’s tendency to retroactively explain new traditions with spurious references to scripture.
One of the jokes in the play for instance is based on Haman being a homonym of the Hebrew word for the manna that the people of Israel ate in their 40-year desert sojourn. One of the characters in the play makes the ridiculous assertion that the commandment to eat "ozney haman" in Purim comes from the passage in Exodus that says that the children of Israel ate the manna. This is meant to be funny.
What were these original ozney Haman cookies like? They were apparently ear-shaped fried cookies dipped in honey, and they appear here and there in the record, either in their Hebrew name or in translation to Italian (“Orecchie di Haman”) and German (“HamensOhren”).
The explanations circulating for why we eat “Haman’s ears” on Purim were no less ridiculous than the Haman pun cited above: We eat them to remember the execution of Haman, since before he was executed his ears were cut off.
However, no such ear cropping is mentioned in Esther. That was however a custom in Medieval Europe, where a condemned man's ears might be cut off before execution.
Ozney Haman: The poppy pocket
Then, come the end of the 18th century, a new cookie craze swept Europe: Pockets of dough filled with poppy seeds, called MohnTaschen, German for “poppy pockets.” At the beginning of the 19th century they became popular among Jews as a Purim treat, probably because Mohn sounds like Haman (the villain from the Book of Esther).
This pun was so popular that as of the beginning of the 19th century, the cookies simply came to be called hamantaschen.
In any case, as the cookies grew in popularity, rabbis sought to find significance. One said, we eat hamentasch (that’s the singular form) because “Haman tash” - Hebrew for “Haman was weakened,” so as to remind us that Mordechai could only beat Haman because God weakened him.
Other authorities suggested a connection between the cookie and Haman, based on its shape: It was suggested that hamantaschen were shaped like Haman’s hat.
The Book of Esther however says nothing about Haman’s headgear. Any traditions regarding what hat Haman wore on his head would have come from Purim shpiels - plays in which Haman was often portrayed wearing a hat.
But what kind of hat did these early hamantaschen look like? At the time tricorne hats were giving way to bicorne hats, which were made popular by Napoleon and his army. The bicorne does indeed look like a pastry pocket, on the other hand, the tricorne looks like modern-day hamantaschen.
In any case, during the 19th century, poppy pockets, hamantaschen, pushed honey cookies, the original ozney haman, into extinction in Europe, and made their way to America and Palestine.
American Jews had no problem using the word hamantaschen. But in Palestine, the reviver of the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, wanted a Hebrew word for the filled Purim cookies, and he chose ozen haman. Maybe he assumed it was the same Purim cookie or maybe he did not care that they were different.
And so in Hebrew, hamantaschen became ozney haman, which may be filled with just about anything from dates to chocolate to spinach, making this whole story very confusing indeed.