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One Small Sephardic Pastry Contains the Essence of Purim

By Makena Mezistrano

Photo credit: Linda Capeloto Sendowski, jewishfoodexperience.com

There is perhaps no more ubiquitous Purim symbol than the hamentaschen—the triangle-shaped pastry made popular by Ashkenazic Jews. Modeled off the shape of the wicked Haman’s supposedly triangular hat, hamantaschen have become popular in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic circles. But Sephardim also have their own triangle-shaped, Purim treats: folares.


Folares are a pastry enjoyed by Ottoman Sephardim made by wrapping a hard-boiled egg in boreka dough and baking until the dough is crisp. While the treats can take many shapes, strips of dough are often wrapped around the egg to create a sort of cage, representing a hangman’s tower around Haman’s head. In some communities, the eggs are dyed different colors—a technique that may have been borrowed from Christians who make similar confections around Easter. [1]


While food is often the main event at Purim--the Shabbat before the holiday is even known as Shabbat de Folares--the real centerpiece is the Purim story from the Book of Esther. This story is rich with relevant messages for us today, and may also offer an interesting insight into the folares. [2]


Folar da Páscoa, a Portugeuse version of the folares popular around Easter time. Photo credit: www.mulherportuguesa.com

Megillat Esther: A (Very) Brief Summary


In short, the Book of Esther recounts the wicked Haman’s failed plot to kill the Jews of Shushan. After being publicly embarrassed by Mordehai, a Jew (and Queen Esther’s uncle) who refuses to bow down to him, Haman casts a pur, or a lottery (from which Purim derives its name), to determine a day on which he will exterminate the Jews, and lands on the 14th of Adar.

In a shocking twist of fate and with Queen Esther’s help, the Jews of Shushan spend the 13th of Adar slaying their enemies, and then celebrate their victory and survival on the 14th—the precise day on which they were slated to be killed. Mordehai thus proclaims the 14th of Adar a commemorative holiday, and it is on this day that we celebrate the holiday of Purim.


What Does Esther Teach Us?


The Purim story is unique for several reasons. For one, even though the story recounts the Jews’ miraculous survival, God is never explicitly mentioned in the text. Perhaps the book intentionally conceals God’s involvement to illustrate the often hidden nature of God’s impact on the world. The takeaway for us today is that although God’s participation in our lives may not be overt, we have the choice to see certain events as miraculous, or simply coincidental.   


The Book of Esther also stands apart because of its female protagonist. In fact, it is specifically due to Esther’s direct hand in the Jews’ survival that both women and men are obligated in all the mitsvot, or commandments, on Purim. [3] Since Esther was so instrumental in securing the Jews’ survival, women are equally obligated in observing the Purim mitzvot. As far as those specific commandments, all are sourced from Book of Esther. [4] The easiest way to remember the Purim mitzvot is by recalling “The Four Ms:” Megillah, hearing the Purim story; Mishteh, the festive meal; Matanot La’Evyonim, giving gifts to those in need; and Mishloah Manot, exchanging a “goodie bag” with at least two different foods.


Folares and the Sephardic Lifestyle: A Balancing Act


Since we’re back to the subject of food, let’s return to our folares. If the practice of dyeing the folares eggs was indeed adopted from Christians, then folares carry an interesting Purim message.


The Book of Esther takes place during the Babylonian exile. The story opens with King Ahashverosh’s 180-day long party, which is open to all, including Jews. Lavishness in Shushan has no limitations. When we read between the lines, the Book of Esther opens with the Jews of Shushan enmeshed in popular culture in a way that was gluttonous and excessive. Even after the Jews’ victory, they seem to simply go back to business as usual; the book closes with the mundane note that Ahashverosh imposes a new tax on the people, and the Jews are still under his rule. We readers are left with a question: Will Shushan’s Jews fall once again into the assimilative trap with which the story opened, or will they soon return to Jerusalem as proud Jews?


Sephardic Jews are perhaps one of the best examples in history of the benefits of cultural cooperation. Beautiful poetry, art, and music has been produced by Sephardic artists due to their involvement with, and not seclusion from, popular society. The folares are, perhaps, another such creation. But eating the folares on Purim certainly carries a level of irony. As Jews, we are always trying to strike a balance. Purim and the folares remind us to ask ourselves how much we are willing to invest and borrow from popular culture, and how much we must remain true to ourselves, even when society demands otherwise.



Sources: 

[1] Let’s Eat: Jewish Food and Faith by Lori Stein and Ronald H. Isaacs, 2017.

[2] The Beauty of Sephardic Life, Sam Bension Maimon, 1993.

[3] Gemara Megillah 4a: Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi said, Women are obligated to read the Megillah because they, too, were included in the miracle.

[4] Esther 9:20-22.