Friday, December 12, 2008

Why the Jelly Doughnuts - and Other (C)Hanuk(k)ah Questions (Hanukkah Web Journey)

(This “classic web journey” from a prior Shabbat-O-Gram may have some inoperative hyperlinks, but, as they say at Dunkin Donuts, it is “worth the trip.”)
I received the following “ask the rabbi” question via e-mail this week:

Rabbi, Perhaps you can answer a Hanukkah question that came up last night as we were eating doughnuts. What is the significance of "jelly" doughnuts versus any other type of doughnut?

This question must be going around, along with the old “Hanukkah” vs. “Chanukah” spelling conundrum. I’ve heard both from dozens of people this week. Indeed, why do the sufganiot, that popular Israeli doughnut treat, have to include jelly? Why not butternut, chocolate or glazed? Why not Boston Creme, for crying out loud? I thought about it and responded:

Hi -
And so I ask, why the applesauce with the latkes? I think in both cases it comes down to sweetness. But then, why the sour cream? Dairy foods are also customary on Hanukkah. The word sufgania is from the Talmud and means "spongy dough." Doesn't sound as appetizing as "Krispy Kreme." Try having spongy dough without something inside to sweeten it up. The Talmud says nothing about jelly -- or that the doughnut should even have a hole, for that matter. It needs more investigation. A dissertation could be written on this!

Well, maybe not a dissertation, but more investigation for sure. Does the jelly symbolize sweetness, fruitfulness, stickiness, or what? Why the jelly?

We begin with an argument based on the implicit connection between certain foods that are traditional on this holiday.

We start the journey at a fascinating Web site explaining Jewish symbols, written from a refreshingly liberal perspective (created by the Jewish Women’s project, Kolot, at the JCC of the Upper West Side): Go to to find Chanukah (they are “CH” people, evidently). Click on “Judith” (or go directly to the summary of this apocryphal tale at and see how the story of Judith ties into this festival and provides it with a unique feminist twist – and also connects it to cheese and dairy products. To see that connection directly, the entire book of Judith is translated at, and you’ll find a reference to cheese in chapter 10. Basically, Judith got the evil Holofernes thirsty with the cheese, drunk with (sweet) wine and then cut off his head and saved the Jews. Anyone know if Osama likes cheese?

So we now have drawn the line connecting Hanukkah to cheese; but cheese is salty, no? Well, if you believe this, you haven’t had a cheese blintz lately. Interestingly, one of the recipes found at the ritualwell site is a Sephardic formula for phyllo triangles with sweet ricotta filling.

Dairy products are frequently tied directly to sweetness. How often is Israel called the land “flowing with milk and honey?”(see Numbers 13:27 and elsewhere) In a land where water is so scarce, the taste of milk takes on an even greater sweetness. Commentators often interpret this as an expression for fertility and fruitfulness. A super article on milk and honey as fertility symbols can be found at Interestingly, the prophet Joel (4:18) draws a direct parallel between milk and fruit juice, saying: “fruits pure as milk and sweet as honey.” The connection is clearly made: sweetness = fruit filling = dairy + honey. Hence, doughnuts without filling just wouldn’t be complete on Hanukkah. Eating a mouth-watering strawberry glazed doughnut is the gastronomical equivalent to splashing around in a land flowing with milk and honey.

Here’s a possible historical argument: In ancient times, the doughnuts had no holes. Dunkin Donuts wasn’t even invented until 1950 ( But even “DDs” does not have the distinction of inventing the uniquely-shaped delicacy. Go to (“A Short History of the Doughnut) and you’ll find that…
“…In a house in Rockport, Maine there is a plaque that recognizes Mason Crockett Gregory with the invention of the doughnut hole, in 1847. The reason why? He hated doughnuts with an uncooked center. (Or perhaps he was just particularly impatient-they cook much quicker without a center) Skeptics point out that Gregory was a sea captain, however, and may well have encountered the jumble version of the confection on his travels, and brought the idea home with him. (This would seem to be the truth behind the legend of a sea captain placing the doughnut on the wheel of his ship for safe-keeping, and then just becoming enamored of the idea.) Even if Captain Gregory came up with the idea, John Blondell was awarded the patent for the first doughnut cutter in 1872. Blondell's version was made of wood, but an 'improved' tin version with a fluted edge was patented in 1889.”
No matter how you look at it, the doughnut hole came many centuries later than Talmud, so when the ancient rabbis spoke of the spongy Sufgania, they couldn’t possibly have been thinking of doughnuts as we know them, the ones with a hole. And if the doughnut has no hole, we all know that it is most likely going to be filled with jelly. Find more about the history of the doughnut at
Some final facts about jelly doughnuts are warranted. It is been pointed out that JFK made a grammatical error in his famous speech where he ostensibly said, in German, “I am a Berliner,” but really said, “I am a jelly doughnut.” This is actually an urban legend (see, but what a great tie in to the Maccabees’ own fight for freedom, were it true! For some cultural parallels to the Sufgania in other traditions, go to -- but be prepared to drool. And finally, go to, where you will read what seems the most plausible explanation for the Sufgania’s jelliness:
Polish Jews adopted a local lekvar (prune preserves) or raspberry jam-filled doughnut, called ponchiks (paczki in Polish) as their favorite Chanukah dessert. Australian Jews, many of whom emigrated from Poland, still refer to jelly doughnuts as ponchiks. When the jelly doughnut made its way to Israel, however, it took the name sufganiyot, after a "spongy dough" mentioned in the Talmud. Sufganiyot subsequently emerged as the most popular Israeli Chanukah food, sold throughout the eight-day festival at almost every bakery and market.
So where did the jelly doughnuts on Hanukkah idea originate? In Poland, of all places, the homeland of that holiest food around: the bagel ( Makes perfect sense. Or at least as much sense as the blizzard that’s happening outside my window right now.
So, are you sorry you asked? Next, you can explore the superiority of the Latke over the Hamentash
As for Hanukkah (h, 2ks) vs Chanukah (Ch, 1k), it’s all about having a total of eight letters. Eight letters – eight nights. See for more on that (that site also is packed with top-notch Hanukkah information).

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