Zeben - Mimouna nougat. Photo: Shutterstock
Zeben - Mimouna nougat. Photo: Shutterstock
Magazine

Mimouna 101

Whether from the word emunah or mammon, a homage to Rambam or an attempt to ward off 15th century pagan gods, Mimouna is a sweet, festive celebration

Mimouna is one of the more niche holidays on the Jewish calendar, originally attributed to the Jews of Morocco – although many other Sephardic communities celebrate the holiday – so you can’t be blamed for not knowing about it. While Mimouna celebrations have become more widespread within Israel, it remains relatively unknown in many places. 

The History

Some attribute the holiday’s name as a nod to the birthday or death of Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon). Some link the root to the word, emunah, which means “faith” or “belief”, or the Arabic term mammon, which means “wealth” and symbolizes prosperity and success (a major theme of the holiday). And still others look to possible pagan roots and the attempt to ward off Mimoun and his partner, Mimouna, demonic figures mentioned in texts from Spain dating from the 15th century. 

The earliest references to celebrations similar to Mimouna apparently date back to the 11th century in Tunisia. Professor Haim Ze’ev Hirschberg wrote an important book documenting the history of Jews within areas of Muslim rule. According to Hirschberg’s research on Mimouna, the holiday is “a celebration of reconciliation that takes place after the Passover holiday to celebrate the end of the food restrictions imposed during this period.”

Many quote the tradition of Jews giving their flour to their Muslim neighbors (since they needed to clear out the house of chametz), and that on the night Passover ended – since nothing was open and their fellow Jewish neighbors would also not have flour – their Muslim neighbors would return that flour to them and be gifted with delicious treats in return. In Morocco specifically, Muslim neighbors often handled the making of the chametz portion of the menu for their Jewish friends. 

Some note that it marks a transition from the darkness of winter to the bright days of spring – a symbol of hope and rebirth. Mimouna is observed in Nisan (the month on the Jewish calendar in which Passover falls), and some believe this date serves both to mark the redemption of the Jews after they came out of Egypt, and to look to a day in the same month when we will be redeemed once again. Some families even visit the sea and walk barefoot in the water the following day, to observe the crossing of the Red Sea. Still others believe that Mimouna serves as a sort of mini New Year, set as it is in Nisan. 

The Traditions

Apparently in Morocco in the 1700s, Jews would visit orchards at nightfall on the final evening of Passover, saying a blessing for the trees and reciting passages from the Mishnah and Mishlei. The feast directly followed. These were open to Jews and Muslims alike, though there was a sort of unofficial order to the visitors: the rabbi, then the parents, followed by important figures in the community, and then whomever, even complete strangers. 

Observers of Mimouna have historically dressed in the traditional attire of the Maghreb – jalabiyas or kaftans. Others don all white or simply dress up in their fanciest attire. It is a holiday spent traveling from home to home, to celebrate surrounded by myriad family and friends. Visitors sing and dance at each stop and the celebrations truly embody the phrase “the more, the merrier.” Some sprinkle their guests with flour or mint at the door to help nudge their luck along. 

On the whole, the evening is seen to be a lucky night, especially in regards to love, livelihood, and fertility. Many believe that on this night, heaven is open to one’s prayers, so it is particularly auspicious for a love match. The numbers five and seven the number for Mimouna and the white covered table can be laid with all sorts of symbolic items in groups of five (a reference to the hand of god (hamsa) as well as the five books of the Torah): five green fava beans wrapped in dough, five dates, five gold bracelets in a bowl, five silver coins (luck), five pieces of gold or silver jewelry, a hamsa, a piece of dough or bowl of flour pitted with five deep fingerprints (countless blessings). 

Seven is another auspicious number, and refers to the seven days of Creation, as well as the numerical value of gad, the Hebrew word for luck. There are sometimes live fish swimming in a bowl of water (money), golden rings hidden in a bowl of flour (finding hoped-for wealth or blessings or warding off the evil eye), dates (fertility), oftentimes sweetmeats, milk, butter, white flour, yeast, honey (happiness), jams (sweet life), a lump of sugar, wheat stalks, plants, fig leaves, and wildflowers (beauty). And all general symbols of bounty, fertility, lucky, blessings and joy.

What’s on the menu?

The table is set to entice the presence of lady luck and laden with all sorts of doughy delights to break the week of abstention. Traditionally, no meat is eaten, nor are sour, salty or black foods (such as coffee) served, for fear of bringing bad luck, only dairy (milk) and sweet (honey) foods are allowed, meant to bring blessings, happiness, abundance and fertility to us all year long. Anise flavors much of the treats and sweet mint tea is served alongside. Ultimately, dishes vary from place to place, the goal is for the table to be covered and everyone’s sweet tooth sated.

Mofletta – thin crepe-like pancakes – can be served slathered with honey or jam and rolled or folded up, or stacked up on a plate like pancakes for guests to top and roll as desired.

Ma’moulim are another very traditional item seen on the table. As are super light rifat. Many of the treats are fried, though the link between the holiday and fried food specifically, seems to be a more recent development. Shamelias, and their close cousins, deblas and fazuelos, are all various shapes of fried dough. Chebakia are beautiful fried cookies with a slightly more complicated shaping, but the end result is well worth the effort. Sfenj, usually more prevalent on Hanukkah, are also often served, and if you want to go kosher for Passover, you can sub in sfereet. Some Libyan communities bake Ungola for their celebration, opting for the individual buns topped with a hardboiled egg and secured in place with two strips of dough. But there are quite a few flour free items that can be served for the holiday – marzipan, magrood, and nougat to name a few. 

That’s not to say that it is only desserts – main dishes and vegetables can feature, as long as they’re sweet. Eggplant is a popular vegetable to serve for the holiday whether fried and drizzled with honey or cooked into a jam! And sweet stews or tajines are also quite prominent, flavored with apricots and plums, and served with sweet couscous cooked in milk and honey.

No matter what you eat, become familiar with the phrase “tarbakhu utsa’adu” (“may you have success and good luck”), you’ll be repeating it over and over all night.

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