Religion & Beliefs

Jewish Mythbusters: Haman Wore A Three-Cornered Hat?

As if we needed another reason to love a holiday that encourages us to drink heavily, Purim (coming up on Thursday night) is also the time of hamantaschen, those deliciously filled, triangular cookies that have inspired years of debate. Growing … Read More

By / March 19, 2008

As if we needed another reason to love a holiday that encourages us to drink heavily, Purim (coming up on Thursday night) is also the time of hamantaschen, those deliciously filled, triangular cookies that have inspired years of debate. Growing up, most of us were fed (and happily consumed) the lip-smacking lie that we eat hamantaschen because Haman, the villain of the Megillah, wore a tri-cornered hat. Why is "eating Haman’s hat" considered an appropriate way of celebrating his demise? And what's with Hebrew hamantaschen being called Oznei Haman, or Haman’s ears? Haman had triangle shaped ears, or maybe a tri-cornered hat, and so we eat poppyseed cookies? What’s the story?
A surprising amount of scholarly research has been conducted on the subject of hamantaschen (also spelled hamentaschen, hamantashen, and hamentashes). Philologos at the Forward does an excellent analysis of the etymology of both hamantaschen and Oznei Haman. Apparently hamantaschen are a comparatively old tradition, dating at least to the middle ages, and in Yiddish the precise translation is "Haman’s pockets." No hats of any shape are mentioned at all.

Oznei Haman originated as a completely different kind of delicacy popular in the Sephardi community, made out of twisted strips of dough flavored with citrus rind and deep-fried in oil. Oznei Haman seem to go back at least as far as the Spanish Inquisition, and actually have some textual basis. There’s a Midrash that says Haman’s ears were twisted as part of his punishment, so eating a commemorative pastry makes a certain—though small—degree of symbollic sense. It’s not clear when Oznei Haman became synonymous with Hamantaschen, but probably within the last century. Last year I posted my hamantaschen recipe and noted that the Swedes have a suspiciously similar cookie, called Napoleon’s Hats or Napoleonhattar, which are traditionally filled with almonds. That actually makes a certain degree of sense: Tri-cornered hats were popular in Napoleon’s time.

The Seforim Blog has an incredibly comprehensive and amusing list of sources that discuss hamantaschen, going as far back as the 13th century. It also summarizes a number of rabbinical explanations for why we eat hamantaschen, including that hamantaschen is a pun on Haman tash—Hebrew for Haman was weakened, and that we eat the pastries because the filling is hidden inside in the same way that the miracle of the Purim story was hidden.