When dairy meals were a Chanukah custom

By Rabbi Baruch Lederman

Rabbi Baruch Lederman

Rabbi Baruch Lederman

SAN DIEGO — Last week, I reported that there is a minhag (custom) to eat latkes on Chanukah because they are made with oil.  This makes sense as oil was part of the miracle when one day’s worth of oil burned for eight days. I was rather astonished to learn this week that that is not the reason for the minhag of latkes on Chanukah.

I received a phone call from Rabbi Yeshocher Ginzburg who related a conversation he had with Rav Dovid Feinstein, shlita, Rosh Yeshiva Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem. Rav Feinstein informed him that the minhag of latkes has nothing to do with oil. In Eastern Europe of old, they did not have cooking oil as we do now. If they wished to fry food they used either chicken schmaltz or butter.

Latkes were fried with butter. Indeed, Rav Feinstein recalled, when he would come home and smell latkes, he knew it was going to be a dairy meal. A typical combination was latkes and sour cream. Having grown up in Eastern Europe, Rav Feinstein was surprised when he came to America and saw latkes in meat delicatessens.  Somehow in America latkes got switched from a dairy food fried in butter, to a pareve food fried in oil. That’s why you will often now see latke/applesauce with brisket.

Rav Feinstein explained that the reason for the minhag of latkes on Chanukah is because they were fried in butter and there is a minhag to eat dairy foods on Chanukah.

Why is there a minhag to eat dairy foods on Chanukah? Funny you should ask.  To quote the Sefer Todaa, the daughter of Yochanan Cohen Gadol was especially beautiful and the tyrant-king desired her. She seemingly acquiesced, came before him and fed him cheese foods which made him thirsty. She then gave him lots of wine to drink till he passed out, whereupon she severed his head and brought it to Jerusalem. When the Syrian soldiers saw that the king had perished, they fled.  Since part of the Chanukah miracle was brought about through cheese, it is a minhag to eat dairy foods on Chanukah.

Does this mean one may not eat meat during Chanukah?  As on Shavuos, one may eat meat as well as dairy foods – just not at the same time, per normal kosher laws.


Dedicated by Avraham & Roz Dimenstein in memory of Rabbi Henry & Rebbetzin Esther Soille.


Rabbi Lederman is spiritual leader of Congregation Kehillas Torah.  Your comment may be posted in the box below or you may contact the author directly at [email protected]

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