The recent elections in Israel got me thinking about superstitious customs we practice as part of the ritual of living Jewishly. A ruckus erupted in Israel when, at an elections rally in Tel Aviv, an artist called a “handful” of Israelis “idol worshipers and mezuzah kissers,” understood by many as a reference to Sephardic Jews or Mizrahim. The implication was that Ashkenazim and Mizrahim are diametrically opposed, the former rational and the latter superstitious.
As it turns out, though, our food traditions can easily prove that this dichotomy is only skin-deep; one can find superstitious practices on both sides of this Jewish divide. Case in point: shlissel challah (hallah*) and bsisa.
Bsisa is North African while shlissel challah is Ashkenazi. Both have similar ingredients and symbolism. Both are practiced around Passover. A key is involved in both. Both are said to bestow good fortune, particularly a prosperous livelihood (parnasa tova), upon their practitioners and their families.
Libyan, Tunisian and Jerban (from Djerba, Tunisia) Jews perform a ceremony called bsisa on the first night of the Jewish month of Nissan. It is believed to be an old custom, tracing back to the building of the Tabernacle, the portable temple the Israelites built in the desert a year after the Exodus from Egypt. The Tabernacle was the foundation of the Temple, and bsisa means basis or foundation.
After Purim, the family matriarch prepares the bsisa, a blend of roasted wheat, barley, garbanzo beans, coriander and cumin, sugar, almonds, dates, sweets and some cookies leftover from Purim. On the first of Nissan, the whole family gathers. The women deposit their gold rings in the bowl containing the bsisa. Pouring oil with his left hand and mixing the bsisa with a key in his right, the family patriarch recites a prayer for the opening of the gate of abundance or plenty and blessings. The other participants then place their fingers in the bowl and the father pours oil over them. Then it is time to taste the bsisa.
For the Shabbat after Passover, some Ashkenazi Jews bake shlissel challah. Shlissel means key in Yiddish. This practice is said to have originated in the Ukraine. Some claim this tradition is Christian or pagan in origin. The custom is to stamp the top of that week’s challah with a key, to top a braided loaf with a dough key (see right) or to form the loaf into the shape of a key (top photo). The purpose of the symbolic key is to open the gate of prosperity.
Both customs are tied to events that took place after the exodus from Egypt. According to tradition, the food sent from heaven, manna, stopped after Passover ended and the Omer, the fifty days leading to the harvest of wheat, began. This symbolized the beginning of working the land to earn a living, so we seek blessings for our efforts.
Regardless of their origins, both traditions connect us to our shared history. Despite varying ethnicities and levels of Jewish practice, this shared history is the glue that still binds us together. When we preserve these traditions, we also connect to our ancestors. We do not deny our stories; we celebrate our differences. Injecting some superstition to our lives does not make us irrational. It would be irrational if we sat idle expecting these practices to provide us with good fortune.
I do not judge individuals who participate in these superstitious rituals; rather, I see a simple wish for abundance and blessings in these practices. We can all use some blessings these days. So here is to being abundantly superstitious this season. When the time comes, I will add the bsisa ingredients to the shlissel challah dough. I hope it affords me a double blessing.
*Leah’s custom is to spell it hallah.
Top photo: Shlissel challah in the shape of a key.