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Mimouna: A unique holiday celebrated by Moroccan Jews

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By Judi Siegal

Every year, at the conclusion of the Passover holiday, Moroccan Jews celebrate a unique holiday called Mimouna. The festival has interesting origins and customs which give it a quality all its own.

Mimouna has been observed for centuries. Some believe the festival derives its name from the father of the famous rabbi Moshe ben Maimon whose birthday or death the holiday commemorates. There are some who think the festival comes from the Hebrew word for faith, emunah. Still others believe the name derives from the Arabic word for luck. Indeed there are both elements in the celebration; religious connotations and cultural folklore.

The religious aspect to the holiday links several events in the Passover story to symbolism and rituals connected with the holiday. The celebration takes place on the evening after Passover ends because it was felt that it was an auspicious time for prayers. The Passover season traditionally is the time of redemption and the coming of the messiah; and even when this did not occur, the faith of the Moroccan Jews still remained strong. The splitting of the Red Sea took place at this time and the faith of the ancient Israelites was renewed when Pharaoh’s men drowned in the frothy foam of the Sea.

The festival table is set with objects that symbolize the holiday. There are fish (some use live ones) gold coins, gold or silver jewelry, fig leaves, honey, wheat, yeast, white flour, jams and beans. The first few items are symbolic of the Reed Sea salvation with the coins and jewelry representing the Egyptian plunder while the rest of the items have to do with prosperity and abundance.

There is also a practical and cultural side to the holiday. At the conclusion of Passover, it was customary for the Moroccan Jews to bring a food basket containing matza, meat pies, salads and an egg to their Muslim neighbors in a gesture of good will and hospitality for guarding the Jews’ leaven items forbidden during the eight days of Passover. In return, the Muslims would give the Jews a food basket containing yeast, butter and flour, items needed to make bread. Since these items were not available to the Jews during Passover because of ritual restrictions, these were welcome gifts and they served as a bridge of friendship between their Muslim neighbors.

The festival also provides a separation between the specialness of Passover and its promise of redemption with the rest of the secular year much like the havdalah ceremony separates the Sabbath from the rest of the week. There is much joy and happiness and it is also a time when matches between young men and women are made.

There is much folklore and superstition associated with the holiday as well. Jews have always adopted the customs of the countries where they have lived. With this in mind, there are elements in the festival that are cultural in origin. 

For instance, the word mimouna could be a derivative of the Arabic word mimoun or luck or good fortune. Because the festival occurs in the spring and the time of new beginnings, it is a perfect time to honor Lady Luck whose honor is exalted in special songs sung at the Mimouna table. This concept of honoring luck dates back to Biblical times to the pagan Canaanite deity Ba’al Gad or god of good fortune. This aspect of the holiday was frowned upon by the rabbis but was included nevertheless as part of folklore.

Writings in the 15th century mention a demon named Mimoun and his partner Mimouna. Gradually as time went on, mimoun faded into history while the she-devil, Mimmouna continued to have importance. Like many festivals throughout the ages, customs and rituals changed and developed so that Mimouna eventually became a festival of luck and good fortune just as Halloween became a holiday of masquerade and trick or treating despite its pagan origins of demons and the haunting of the dead.

In the State of Israel, the festival is celebrated in Moroccan communities and has taken on importance due to the large Moroccan population. Whatever its origins, the festival continues to play a part in the lives of Moroccan Jews.

Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil, and they enjoy RVing together.