A Good Name is better than Good Oil – Ecclesiastes 7:1
During the holiday of Hanukkah, much of the ritual surrounds oil. The menorah, which is the prototype for the Hanukkiah was lit in the Temple with oil. Olives were the main source of oil and are one of the seven species mentioned in the Bible as being indigenous in the Land of Israel. Many today are careful to light their Hanukkiah with olive oil and not with regular paraffin candles. Many of the traditional foods also are fried, signifying the important of this substance.
Exactly which foods should be fried remains a dispute surrounding cultural norms and traditions. In Israel, we eat fried doughnuts, sufganiyot. Much of the Western world, however, associates fried potato pancakes, latkes, with the holiday. Where did this tradition come from? Potatoes are, of course, a New World food not showing up on tables in Europe until the 16th century. Three hundred years prior, during the 13th/14th century, there was a tradition started by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus of eating fried patties of something else.
The name “Kalonymus” does not seem to be a Hebrew name or one that would nominally be associated with leaders of the Jewish people. The tradition of giving names from the surrounding culture was quite prevalent even in ancient times. Judah son of Mattityahu Hashmonai is better known by his Greek name, Maccabeus. In the book of Maccabees when introducing Judah and his brothers, they are each mentioned along with their Greek name similar to many Jews today having a Hebrew name and an English name. Many parents give their children Hebrew and English names which are connected – starting with the same letter or having the same meaning. Kolonymus is of Late Greek origin and translates to Shem Tov (Good Name).
Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus came from a long line of scholars and leaders of the Jewish community in Europe and both he and his father carried the title, “Nasi” (prince). He was born in Provence, France in 1286. Best known for his translations from Arabic to Hebrew, he traveled throughout Europe, spending time in Avignon, Catalonia, and Rome. But his most popular legacy is not connected to his academic prowess, but rather to eating fried patties on Hanukkah.
The Hanukkah story has many motifs, but one of them is how an unlikely, seemingly weak party can overwhelm a superior force. Another account from the Bible of this same theme is the story of Yael and Sisera (Judges 4:17ff). After Sisera’s defeat at Mt. Tavor, he escapes and seeks refuge in the tent of a woman, Yael. She lures him to sleep by giving him warm milk and the promise of protection. While he sleeps, she kills him, driving the tent stake through his skull. The general who survived the onslaught of an army and escapes, is finally finished off by a woman in a tent who knows the power of warm milk.
As a nod to Yael and her warm milk, Rabbi Kolonymus ben Kolonymus ate fried ricotta cheese pancakes. Fried, to remember the menorah in the Temple which was lit on the re-dedication after the defilement by the Greeks, and made with dairy products to recall Yael’s unexpected victory over Sisera. The morphing of this tradition into latkes, potato pancakes, was only developed among Ashkenazi, western European, Jews in the 19th century when potatoes became a staple crop then.
Thus, the good oil of fried latkes came out of the good name of Kolonymus ben Kolonymus.
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