What Are Hamantaschen?

Theories How the Popular Purim Cookies Were Named

Festive Food
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Hamentaschen are triangular-shaped pastries that are traditionally eaten during the Jewish holiday of Purim. The Purim tradition is rich with feasting. A big part of Purim is and the custom of making Purim baskets and gifting food to others during the holiday (mishloach manot). Hamentaschen are a popular basket-stuffer.

The Naming of Hamantaschen

"Hamantaschen" is a Yiddish word meaning "Haman’s pockets." Haman is the villain in the Purim story, which appears in the Biblical Book of Esther. The word "hamantash" is singular. "Hamantashen" is the plural form. Regardless, most people refer to the pastry as hamantaschen, whether you are referring to one or several. 

There are a number of theories as to how the popular Purim cookies got their name. Hamantaschen are the most recent name of the treats with first references occurring in the early 19th century. At the end of the 1 8th century, pockets of dough filled with poppy seeds called MohnTaschen, (poppy pockets) took off in popularity in Europe. At the beginning of the 19th century, they became popular among Jews as a Purim treat, probably because "Mohn" sounds like Haman.

It is believed that the doughy triangles were first called ozney Haman, which means "Haman's ears" in Hebrew. This name may have come from the old practice of cutting off criminals' ears before they were executed by hanging. The original cookies were ear-shaped fried cookies dipped in honey.

There is a reference to what scholars think is ozney Haman in a 1550 satirical Hebrew play, the earliest surviving Hebrew play. The play was produced by Leone de'Sommi Portaleone for a Purim carnival in Mantua, Italy. The script contains a play on words in which one character thinks that the Biblical story of the Israelites eating manna in the desert is actually saying that the Israelites "ate Haman," with another character responding with an interpretation that it must mean that Jews are commanded to eat "ozney Haman."

Celebrating festival of Purim. Illustration by Krichner, Nurnberg, 1734
Celebrating festival of Purim. Children playing games.Giving money to Purim spielers. Illustration by Krichner, Nurnberg, 1734. Culture Club/Getty Images​

Purim Backstory

Purim dates back to actual historical events that may be difficult to date definitively. Some scholars claim it was around the 8th century B.C., some say it was sooner when rabid anti-Semite Haman was the Grand Vizier of Persia.

Mordechai, a Jewish member of the king's court and relative of Queen Esther, refused to bow down to Haman, so the Grand Vizier set developed a plot to have all the Jews in the kingdom massacred. Queen Esther and Mordechai discovered Haman's plot and were able to foil it. In the end, Haman is executed on the gallows that he had planned to use on Mordechai. Jews eat hamantaschen on Purim to commemorate how Jews escaped Haman's dastardly plans.

Hamantaschen, Purim mask and Purim Gragger
Hamantaschen, Purim Mask and Purim Gragger. Vlad Fishman/Getty Images

Hamantaschen Shape

One explanation for the triangular shape of these pastries is that Haman wore a three-cornered hat.

Other symbolism that has been attributed to the pastries is that the three corners represent Queen Esther's strength and the founders of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

How They Are Made

There are a number of recipes for hamantaschen. Popular fillings for hamantaschen are fruit marmalade, cheese, caramel, halva, or poppy seeds (the oldest and most traditional variety). The poppy seeds are sometimes said to represent the bribe money Haman collected.

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Pelaia, Ariela. "What Are Hamantaschen?" Learn Religions, Aug. 2, 2021, learnreligions.com/what-are-hamantaschen-2076476. Pelaia, Ariela. (2021, August 2). What Are Hamantaschen? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-are-hamantaschen-2076476 Pelaia, Ariela. "What Are Hamantaschen?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-are-hamantaschen-2076476 (accessed June 5, 2023).