By Dr. Yigal Bin-Nun
Mimouna, the holiday of the Moroccan Jews, is a family celebration but also a happening that attracts a large number of politicians - a combination that has assured its legitimacy in Israel. The most common explanation for the origin of the holiday has to do with its name, which people try to anchor in a Jewish religious context. In Israel, the Mimounahas been linked to the birthday of Rabbi Maimon, the father of Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), or portrayed as a festival of emuna (faith), because of the phonetic similarity between the words. 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.
The Mimounatable offers a hint of the holiday's true origins. It is not set for a family dinner, as usual, but displays an array of symbols that are basically variations on a theme. On this table you will not find typical Moroccan cuisine. It is laden neither with meat dishes nor an assortment of salads. Instead, it is laid out with items, each of which is symbolic in some way: a live fish swimming in a bowl ofwater, five green fava beans wrapped in dough, five dates, five gold bracelets in a pastry bowl, dough pitted with five deep fingerprints, five silver coins, five pieces of gold or silver jewelry, a palm-shaped amulet, sweetmeats, milk and butter, white flour, yeast, honey, a variety of jams, a lump of sugar, stalks of wheat, plants, fig leaves, wildflowers and greens. All are symbols of bounty,fertility, luck, blessings and joy. The traditional holiday greeting fits right in: "Tarbakhu u-tsa'adu" - meaning, "May you have success and good luck."
Why is the table set this way? The answer can be found in the name of the holiday and in the songs traditionally sung on the day. The Arabic word mimoun means luck or good fortune. At the Mimouna celebrations, songs are sung in honor of "LadyLuck." One of them is "Lala mimouna/ mbarka masuda," which means "Lady Mimouna/lucky and blessed." Lady Luck is being feted with a table laden with goodies symbolizing abundance, health, success and good fortune.
A table set out in honor of Lady Luck will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has explored folk customs and traditions over the ages. The prophet Isaiah already mentionsone: "But as for you who forsake the Lord / Who ignore My holy mountain, Who set a table for Luck / And fill a mixing bowl for Destiny ..." (Isaiah 65:11). The verse in Hebrew is "Ve'atem-ha'orkhim le'gad shulkhan." This "Gad" is none other than the Babylonian deity, Ba'al-Gad, the god of good fortune. A table is set to appease him.
The prophets of Israel denounced this custom, as they did manyother superstitions of the day. The rabbis of the Talmud decried it, too: "Veha'orekh lefaneha (lifnay hayoledet) shulkhan haray zeh meedarkhay ha'emori" (Tosefta Shabbat: 7). One must not "set a table" for a woman after childbirth, they said. This is the way of the Amorites, that is, it's a pagan custom.
In the 15th century, we find written references to a demon named Mimoun, husband to ashe-devil named Mimouna. "Claviculae Salomonis," a handbook of magic composed in Spain, probably 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.
But when did the Jews of Morocco startsetting tables for them on the day after Passover? The answer may be found in the journals of Jewish travelers. An Italian Jew by the name of Samuel Romanelli, who visited Morocco at the end of the 18th century, witnessed the practice and theorized where it came from: "After dark, as Passover ends, a table is set out with baked goods and people visit one another. Guests eat their fill and bestow...