Go ahead: Bite into that jelly doughnut once Chanukah arrives.
It could be said that the Talmud justifies consuming the triple threat of calories, carbohydrate and fat.
The military victory of Judas Maccabee and his tiny band over the entire Syrian-Greek army of Antiochus in 167 B.C.E. recorded in the Book of Maccabees was apparently not quite enough to justify a religious celebration.
For a religious celebration, a miracle was needed, a miracle that centuries later would elevate the place of the jelly doughnut to center stage on the holiday table.
“And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks,” intones the Babylonian Talmud, ac-cording to the William Davidson Talmud translation. “And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.”
But why the jelly doughnut?
Or to put it partially in Hebrew: Why sufganiyot?
The jelly doughnut, according to food historian Gil Marks in his “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” was first recorded in Germany in 1485. Marks did not say what the Germans called the snacks. In Germany today, they are known as pfannkuchen, the Berliner for short.
In Poland, where the treats migrated next, they were known as the ponchik, acccording to Marks, taken from the word for flower bud.
“(A)nd in some areas they became a popular Hanukkah treat, filled with plum, raspberry, or rose petal jam,” Marks writes. “In the late 1800s, Polish immigrants brought the ponchik to Israel, where it eventually took the Hebrew name sufganiot (sufganiyot, plural), from a ‘spongy dough’ mentioned in the Talmud.”
Notice the Talmud, again making an entrance.
“At first, jelly doughnuts were not widely eaten in Israel, even on Hanukkah, as they were difficult and intimidating for many people to make,” according to Marks.
Only later did they take their place as a staple of Chanukah, as part of the labor movement, according to Marks.
“Then in the late 1920s, the Israeli labor federation championed sufganiyot as a Hanukkah treat,” Marks continued, “because they provided work – preparing, transporting, and selling the doughnuts – for its members.”
Thus, sufganiyot take their place on the holiday table alongside latkes.