Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi


Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


No. 126, Parashat Tzav 5756

"The Bread of Poverty" - Not Only on Passover

Prof. Dan Michman

Department of Jewish History

Each Shabbat many Jews place on their table a "kugel" alongside "tshulent" and other traditional hot foods. Chamin (hot food) on Shabbat is known to us from very ancient sources as something prepared before Shabbat and kept in some central heating place - to be brought out and eaten on Shabbat itself. What were the ingredients of chamin? From where did its "relative" - the "kugel" come ? Let us examine three lists of "kugel" ingredients.

Ingredients for recipe "A": 250 grams of cooked noodles, one half cup of oil, 3 eggs, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, 5 tablespoons of burnt sugar (for caramel).

Ingredients for recipe "B": 10 peeled and ground-up potatoes, 1 ground onion, 1/2 cup of oil, 5 eggs, 1 teaspoon of salt, one teaspoon of black pepper, 1 teaspoon of paprika.

Ingredients for recipe "C": 1 kilogram of pears (or sour apples or quince), 1 cup of sugar, 1 ground lemon peel, 1 cup of self-rising flour, one half cup of regular flour, 100 grams of margarine, raisins and/or lemon peel and/or pieces of dates and/or pieces of figs, 1 teaspoon each of ginger, cinnamon and cloves.

What do all three recipes have in common? Despite the different flavors of these "kugels", their varying geographical roots, and the spices added in the course of years (we have here noodle and potato kugels which originated in eastern Europe - with some Israeli variations - and a "Dutch kugel"), they do have one common trait: Jewish poverty. If we analyze the above lists carefully we will find that the main ingredients are common, inexpensive products - noodles, flour, potatoes, inexpensive fruit, eggs. The "tscholent" we all know so well today has a similar trait: large quantities of potatoes and scraps of meat. Even "gefilte fish" is made from fish which has been ground up, not fillet.

Why is this so?

The 17th and 18th centuries saw acute economic polarization among European Jews. Alongside an upper crust of rich, well-to-do city dwellers who were merchants and "Court Jews", the vast majority of the Jews of Europe were poor and destitute. Their impoverished state was caused by changes in the development of the European economy, political upheavals and wars, a rising birthrate, and the limitations on residency and permitted occupations which were applied to Jews in many locations [1] . It was an especially difficult time for the Jews of the Germanic lands [2] and Holland (whose capital, Amsterdam, was the home of the largest Jewish community in Western Europe at the time). According to one estimate, in the early decades of the 18th century around 2% of the population in Germany were wealthy, about 8% were in the middle class, and all the rest were poor people of one kind or another. Most of the poor were without permanent residency rights and were forced to migrate from place to place, making their living from random employment, begging (and so were called "bettel-Juden" or "beggar-Jews") - and crime (both incidental and organized). A contemporary description from 1783 tells us that "many, perhaps most of the Jews of Germany, spend almost all their days on the road, as peddlers. The peddlers' meal consists of a salted fish and a loaf of bread, which can be bought for one crown. He quenches his thirst with the water of a stream he finds on his way or from a nearby well. What he earns he saves carefully in order to bring it home on Friday to provide food and clothing for his wife and children... and believe it or not, even though this pauper is forced to go out 50 times a year to seek his fortune which may perhaps amount to 50 florin, there are sometimes other Jews who are envious of him... ."[3]

In the city of Amsterdam, where there were 25,000 Jews in the year 1795, only 1.16 % of the Ashkenazim paid taxes (those with an annual income of more then 800 florins had to pay). Among the Sephardic ("Portuguese") Jews the percentage of taxpayers was 9.43%! Fifteen years earlier, before Passover in 1780, the Ashkenazic community leadership distributed flour for the baking of matzah to 3540 needy families and individuals. In 1799 there were 18,800 poor Jews, who comprised one quarter of the total poor in the city, though Jews were only 11% of the total population[4].

The nineteenth century brought a slow improvement in the economic conditions of the Jews of Western Europe, though the majority remained very poor until the present century[5]. In contrast, the situation of the Jews in Tzarist Russia declined even in the second half of the nineteenth century, which explains their massive support for various types of socialist ideas[6]. Even in Eretz Yisrael a large segment of the population was dependent on the "Chalukah", the dominant charity system of the era, in which Jews from abroad gave money to the members of the "Kollel" or settlement of their former countrymen now in the Holy Land.

In general, poverty and need determined the way of life for most of the Jews of Europe in the modern era. In order to satisfy their hunger - at least on Shabbat - their menus included high proportions of relatively inexpensive ingredients which were very filling. Hence, the "universal" "kugel" and "cholent" among Ashkenazi Jews in Europe.

Only in our present century did the economic status of most Jews change significantly, due to massive immigration to the United States, the rise of the capitalist economic system, and the annihilation of most poor Jews in the Holocaust. In any case, these traditional dishes also succeeded in climbing up the socio-economic ladder. To become focal points of nostalgia, the glory of "The Jewish kitchen". One other reason for their survival is related in jest: the fact that Jews are able to wake up from their Shabbat naps after eating all these foods (which are not exactly low in calories!) is the best possible proof for the validity of the Jewish belief in ... the resurrection of the dead !


[1] See: I. Israel, European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, Oxford, 1989, pp. 252-253.

[2] See: R. Mahler, Divrei Yemei Yisrael, Dorot Achronim, vol. 1, book 2, pp. 31-34

.[3] A request by a German Jew to the President of the Congress of the United States of America, translated by: D. Weinrib, President Gormim Kalkali'im V'sotziali'im Bahaskalah Hayehudit B'Germania", Knesset L'zecher C.N. Bialik, Book 3, Tel Aviv, 1989, pp.424-425; see also other data on German povetry in the same article.

[4] D. Michman, '"La periode Batave' et la 'periode Francaise' dans l'histoire des Juifs de Hollande (1795-1813) et son evaluation dans l'historiographie", Tsafon 5, (Printemps 1991) p. 42

[5] A.Y. Bornstein, Ani'im Yehudim Be'idan Hayazamim Hagedolim", Yehudim Bakalkalah (N. Gross, ed.) Jerusalem 1985, p.288

[6] S. Ettinger, Toldot Am Yisrael Ba'et Hachdashah, Tel Aviv , 1969,p.80; M. Mishkinski, Reshit Tnu'at Hapoalim Hayehudit B'Russia, Tel Aviv, 1981, p.25

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