בסיעתא דשמיא

Writing

  • Poetry

Tweets


On the Meaning of Mimouna

Ten years ago, Israeli historian Dr. Yigal Bin-Nun wrote a sensational article in Haaretz הארץ on the origins of the Moroccan Jewish post-Passover festival of Mimouna. In the article, Bin-Nun speculates that Mimouna was a Judaized festival originally derived from local customs celebrating gods of Fortune. I wish to present an alternate thesis which provides more of the Jewish context for Mimouna within the mytho-historical arc of the Exodus narrative.

Bin-Nun begins by exploring the first appearance of ‘Mimouna’ attested in historical writings. He explains:

In the 15th century, we find written references to a demon named Mimoun, husband to a she-devil named Mimouna. “Claviculae Salomonis,”[1]in its Hebrew recension: Sefer Maphteaḥ Shelomo, an Italian grimoire translated into Hebrew containing theurgical and magical work with both Jewish and Greek origins from the first millenium. We have not been able to confirm this detail and require a more exact reference than Bin0nun provides in his Haaretz article. a handbook of magic composed…before the 15th century, mentions a demon, king or god called the “black Mimoun from the Occident.” The Occident is North Africa – specifically Morocco. Mimoun and his female partner appear in numerous manuscripts from the 16th century onward.

[…] In 1772, two other travelers, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (the Hida), and Elkana Bar Yeruham, write that “Isru-chag” – the day after Passover – was considered a vulnerable time, and it was customary to have a feast in order to ward off the Evil Eye. Hence the need to appease the demons of chance, Mimoun and Mimouna, on this particular day.

Bin-Nun also notes the following tradition among the Gnawa people of Morocco:

The Gnawa conduct ceremonies once a year that start with a parade and end in ecstatic dancing. Their songs are addressed to the goddess Mimouna and her partner, Sidi Mimoun. Among the Gnawa, too, the appeal to Lady Luck is an attempt to mollify her.

One of their songs goes something like this: “Here she comes, Lady Mimouna / Here she comes, Lady Fortuna / Bringing joy to all and sundry / With her bounty / We never go hungry / Candies, cakes and drinks galore / Pleasure and gladness lie in store/ Mimouna, beloved / Your sun cures our ills / Shining down upon the hills / Lovely, grinning ear to ear / Visit us, Mimouna, every year.”

Bin-Nun sums up his thesis by comparing Mimouna to the tashlich ritual on Rosh Hashana, and relegates both to primitive folk practices that have been legitimized over time by religious authorities:

Notwithstanding the vast differences between Moroccan Jewry and the Gnawa, the figure of Lady Luck was adopted by the Jews. On the other hand, Sidi Mimoun, whose name cropped up in amulets, kabbalistic texts and incantations, gradually disappeared, leaving only his female partner behind. [….] The Moroccan Jewish Mimouna was thus a feast day designed to appease a local she-devil, and contained no religious components. In Israel, however, its pagan origins have been ignored. The same is true of the tashlich ceremony. Over the years, both have undergone a process of religious legitimization.

Neglected by Bin-Nun is the Passover story-arc which lends itself so well to the celebration of Mimouna. Dismissively, he writes, “Of course, there is a connection to redemption and the Exodus from Egypt because the holiday falls on the day after Passover ends. But, in fact, all these explanations are mistaken.” I think Mimouna deserves much more regard than Bin-Nun is willing to consider.

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is not merely referenced in the Passover seder, it is mapped onto the Jewish calendar from the beginning of Passover through the festival of Shavuot. According to Rabbinic tradition, the 21st of Nissan is the day in the Jewish calendar on which Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the Sea of Reeds, and the redeemed children of Yisrael sang the Song of the Sea, (the Shirat Hayam, Exodus 15:1-19). The song, as included in the the morning prayers, comprises one of the most ancient text in Jewish liturgy. The 21st of Nissan corresponds to the 7th day of Passover, and the recitation of the Shirat HaYam is part of that day’s Torah Reading. Here is Rabbi Hillel Ḥayim Yisraeli-Lavery sharing a performance of a melody he learned for the Shirat Hayam from צוף דבש Tzuf Devash, a Moroccan synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem.

According to the Mekhilta de Rebbi Yishmael,[2]Lauterbach, Mekhilta 1:106 (Pishka 13); Epstein and Melamed, Mekhilta 32 (Bo 12:35-36) the plunder of the Egyptian army on the banks of the Sea of Reeds was greater than what was taken out from the land of Egypt during the plague of darkness. The frame of this narrative provides a rather straightforward explanation. Mimouna occurs on the day after the celebration of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the day the Israelites had the good fortune of collecting the treasure of Pharaoh’s decorated army washed up on the shores of the Sea of Reeds. The traditional holiday greeting on Mimouna, “Tarbakhu u-tsa’adu,”  means, “May you have success and good luck.” Displayed on a specially set table are several symbolic items that directly signify material wealth.

  • a live fish swimming in a bowl of water,
  • five silver coins,
  • five pieces of gold or silver jewelry,
  • five gold bracelets in a pastry bowl,
  • a palm-shaped amulet [i.e., a ḥamsa]

Prominent as a symbol is the number five, underscored by the display of the ḥamsa (חמש ḥamesh = 5) an ancient symbol that does double duty as a sign of shefa (divine abundance) and divine compassion. In additions to the symbols of wealth are food ingredients, all vegetarian, which Bin-Nun describes are symbolic of “bounty, fertility, luck, blessings and joy.” Another explantion: these are all treats which can now be eaten following Passover and which signify the abundance maturing during the period of the Sefirat HaOmer.

  • stalks of wheat,
  • plants,
  • fig leaves,
  • wildflowers and greens,
  • yeast,
  • white flour,
  • five green fava beans wrapped in dough,
  • dough pitted with five deep fingerprints,
  • five dates,
  • honey,
  • a variety of jams,
  • a lump of sugar,
  • milk and butter.

Bin-Nun notes a curious custom from Casablana called ‘bu haras‘; “The person walked into the water, turned around to face the shore, took pebbles out of his pocket, and tossed them behind his back. Then he recited this verse: ‘Sir a bu haras, sir a der, siru la’alay‘ (‘Go away, troublemaker; go away, pain; go away, evil spirits’).” The valence of Passover is the divine aspect of Mashḥit (the divine as Executioner) and its central custom was once the slaughter and consumption of the Paschal lamb. The narrative of the Exodus is overshadowed with a numinous destructive power which we are told in so many ways not to celebrate — by dipping out our wine at the plagues, or in the midrash, by not celebrating the drowning of Pharaoh’s army (Megillah 10b). It thus seems appropriate that no meat is served in the post-Passover festival of Mimouna. This festival looks forward to Shavuot, another festival in which foods besides meat are traditionally consumed. While the Israelite people may be conceived through a violent divine intervention, the goal of their preparation in the womb of the wilderness is to receive a Torah which helps them to circumscribe the predatory desires and passions possessing the Nature of this world.

Bin-Nun notes objections in Isaiah 65:11 to worshiping Ba’al-Gad, god of fortune, and in Tosefta Shabbat 7 to a mysterious “setting a table” for a woman after childbirth. Given these strong objections, I believe a festival celebrating fortune delivered from the sea could not be placed just anywhere in the Jewish calendar. It would need to be placed somewhere it would fit, perfectly. And for Mimouna, the day immediately after Passover does just that.

Bin-Nun’s omission of Mimouna’s Jewish contexts rather blithely distorts the meaning of Mimouna as a ritual without any Jewish significance outside of unelaborated kabbalistic and mystical charm. Bin-Nun too quickly dismisses what is not otherwise attested in the sources available to him. This is to be excused to some degree, since the Jewish context I have presented immediately above is my own speculation; I did not learn it from any teacher. However, by giving respect and due regard for Moroccan Jewish tradition, I was easily able to fit Mimouna within the lattice of the Jewish thought world that I have been deeply immersed in my entire life. Within this construction, Mimouna is as legitimate as any other Jewish festival and is moreover special since it might retain a lineage of folk custom lost in the traumatic history endured by other Jewish communities.

I share an interest with Bin-Nun in recovering wherever possible the origins of Jewish ritual and belief and their connections to neighboring and historic cultures. However, use of pejorative descriptors like “she-devil” and “pagan origins”[3]In Late Antiquity, “pagan,” Latin for “farmer” became a pejorative slur against those holding to pre-Christian beliefs outside of urban centers where orthodox doctrines were poorly known and where polytheist, animist, and other unfamiliar and suppressed minority beliefs had the freedom to be practiced. are eyebrow raising. The thrust of Bin-Nun’s argument, effectively delegitimizing Mimouna, suggests to me he might hold barely concealed contempt for folk Jewish traditions gussied up in the dress of “religiously legitimized” Jewish practice. There must be some implicit Israeli political context explaining this aggression,[4]The presentation of religious authenticity in order to validate communal authority and political power should motivate resistance. I wonder whether there is something of an anti-Shas polemic underlying Bin-Nun’s piece on Mimouna, especially given how the holiday must look to Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis when politicians appear at Mimouna photo-ops to show their respect for Morrocan Jewry and their political bloc power. but what concerns me is the greater implication that the authenticity and legitimacy of a culture derive from its ability to keep itself hermetically contained and separate from other cultures, religions, or local customs. This is a dangerous falsehood, the root of some obnoxious and casual prejudice. Origins need not be conveniently ignored in order to preserve legitimacy, and exposure to origins should not be used to demean. One may certainly argue that most, if not all Jewish holidays evolved from antecedents that would seem now alien in contrast: Passover from a Canaanite festival recognizing the ascent of the god of death and the dry season, Mōt, over the god of the rainy season, Baal; Ḥanukkah as a Judaization of a widespread ritual dedicated to Astarte during the Hellenistic Brumalia; Purim as a community festival for sharing collective food resources to stave off hunger at the very end of the winter, etc. Having these ancient connections in no way delegitimizes Jewish religion. It is the way in which these festival have been made distinctively Jewish over time which matters. Human cultures do not live in petri dishes. They live organically, side-by-side and share with one another. What is important is how they distinguish themselves, the “vast differences between Moroccan Jewry and the Gnawa” as Bin-Nun puts it. What distinguishes them are the particular communal values and cosmological details they impress into the set and setting of their rituals, liturgies, and myths.

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

Notes   [ + ]

1. in its Hebrew recension: Sefer Maphteaḥ Shelomo, an Italian grimoire translated into Hebrew containing theurgical and magical work with both Jewish and Greek origins from the first millenium. We have not been able to confirm this detail and require a more exact reference than Bin0nun provides in his Haaretz article.
2. Lauterbach, Mekhilta 1:106 (Pishka 13); Epstein and Melamed, Mekhilta 32 (Bo 12:35-36)
3. In Late Antiquity, “pagan,” Latin for “farmer” became a pejorative slur against those holding to pre-Christian beliefs outside of urban centers where orthodox doctrines were poorly known and where polytheist, animist, and other unfamiliar and suppressed minority beliefs had the freedom to be practiced.
4. The presentation of religious authenticity in order to validate communal authority and political power should motivate resistance. I wonder whether there is something of an anti-Shas polemic underlying Bin-Nun’s piece on Mimouna, especially given how the holiday must look to Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis when politicians appear at Mimouna photo-ops to show their respect for Morrocan Jewry and their political bloc power.

Leave a Reply

בסיעתא דארעא