Amorite Pretzels (Shabbat 67a)

I’ve been reading the kids the Beezus and Ramona series since the start of Corona – my four-year-old confuses “Ramona” and “Corona” — and so Ramona and daf yomi have been two of my primary literary preoccupations of late. Yesterday we read about how Ramona’s parents made her and Beezus cook dinner after they complained, on the previous night, that tongue was disgusting and they wanted plain meat instead. “Tongue is cheaper and it’s nutritious,” their mother told them sternly – she had recently gotten a job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office to cover the bills while Ramona’s father was back in school studying to be an art teacher. On the night of the slandered tongue (לשון הרע?), he was sketching his foot several times over in their living room as part of his homework, and Ramona was feeling embarrassed that she was a better artist. But cooking dinner was not something that she and Beezus could do better, at least they didn’t think they could, and it was with a fair amount of trepidation that they approached the refrigerator to plan their meal.

In the end the sisters prepared a successful dinner, though my kids were rather disgusted by their chicken thighs dipped in banana yogurt and seasoned with chili powder. Inspired by the story, my kids insisted that they wanted to make dinner for our family. I was told that I was allowed to help out, “but we’re really doing it ourselves,” they assured me.

“What do you want to make?” I asked somewhat skeptically.

“Pretzels!” my son announced, after he caught sight of the empty pretzel jar in our pantry. “We’re making pretzels for dinner.” The girls nodded in unison.

I tried to explain that pretzels weren’t exactly dinner, but the kids agreed to eat them with cottage cheese and chickpeas, which are their preferred sources of protein add-ons when I insist that their food lacks nutrition. We looked up a recipe for soft pretzels, made the dough together, and then I let the kids shape them into twisted pretzels knots before I dipped them in a pot of boiling baking soda, which is apparently how they brown. The pretzels went in the oven and everyone had a hearty—if not exactly healthy—dinner. I told myself that we often have homemade bread and cottage cheese for dinner, so this wasn’t all that different.

That night, while Daniel was cutting their nails after the bath, he showed them a video of the history of the pretzel. (Way back when, my kids never watched videos unless we were cutting their nails. Then they began begging us to cut their nails so they could watch videos. Now they don’t need excuses to request videos anymore, but the tradition of “clips” — YouTube clips and nail clipping — has continued.) In the video, Mr. Rogers went to a pretzel bakery where a young man tied an apron around his waist and taught him all about how pretzels were made. We were quite astonished to learn—at least according to Mr. Rogers’ source—that pretzels originated in Italy 1500 years ago as prizes given to Christian children for learning their prayers well; the term pretzel comes from “pretiola,” Italian for “little rewards.” The three empty spaces in the pretzel represent the three parts of the trinity, and the dough is folded over to resemble arms crossed in prayer.

I couldn’t believe it. We had been ingesting the catechism for years. The kids sensed my horror. “Does that mean we can’t eat pretzels in shul?” my daughter asked. “I’m not sure we can eat pretzels at all,” I responded, but my other daughter assured us that surely we could eat pretzel sticks and round pretzels, all of which are readily available from Osem. I found myself wondering. In this country where it is illegal to sell Hametz on Pesach and one would be hard-pressed to find non-kosher food in the supermarkets, how is it possible that pretzels–known by the equally sacred term beigele– are so popular?

This week in daf yomi, at the end of the sixth chapter of Masechet Shabbat (67a), we learned about various activities that are forbidden because they resemble the “ways of the Amorites,” one of the idolatrous nations whom the Israelites were supposed to distinguish themselves from upon arriving in the Land of Israel. The topic comes up because the Mishnah is discussing the laws of carrying on Shabbat, and specifically what items may and may not be carried outside on Shabbat. The Mishnah teaches that a nail from a crucifix may not be carried out on Shabbat because of the “ways of the Amorites” – since non-Jews use this item for healing purposes, Jews are not allowed to use it and therefore can’t carry it on Shabbat. The Talmud goes on to list various other medicinal remedies and auspicious practices prohibited because of the ways of the Amorites, including urinating in front of a pot to ensure that one’s food cooks properly and staying silent while boiling lentils so as not to disturb the legumes. In any case it seems clear to me that a pretzel twisted to resemble arms crossed in Christian prayer was not much better than a nail from a crucifix or these culinary superstitions, and I am now quite surprised that pretzels have a hechsher.

I wonder if in Amorite families, too, the children occasionally made dinner for their parents. And I secretly hope that my kids, following in the footsteps of Beezus and Ramona, will agree to cook for us again. I don’t mind if it’s an Amorite practice – just as long as they don’t pee on the kitchen floor.

4 thoughts on “Amorite Pretzels (Shabbat 67a)

  1. Sally Buffington says:

    I would like to suggest that not all Christians hold these traditions and thus perhaps are being put into too broad a class. Also, isn’t the suggestion of prayer, however carried out, a good gift to pass along? We all pray, whatever our religion, and it is a universal practice, also (deeply needed in the world right now) one that focuses on the divine rather than on humans themselves. So much is held in common among world religions, or custom/practices carried over. I learn from your practice, you learn from mine. So perhaps the pretzel carries with it a ministry of a kind?

    As you might have surmised by now, I am Christian myself – but I have read your beautiful book “If All the Seas Were Ink” twice now and learned from it both times, even though I don’t convert or carry out all your practices. But you have taught me much.
    One last thing – I am just charmed by the juxtaposition of Beezus and Ramona and daf yomi – variety is truly the spice of life!
    Thank you for your writings and thoughts.

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  2. Matt says:

    That’s fascinating. I never though about the history of pretzels.
    According to Wikipedia, though, the Christian symbolism is only one of several theories. Unfortunately some of the others aren’t much better – “Modern scholars identify the pretzel as a symbol of human sacrifice to the Celtic goddess Sirona.[dubious – discuss] The rope of dough with three holes represents a three-part noose, which was used to kill three people by hanging.[11]”

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  3. Daniel Goldfarb says:

    Hi, Ilana:

    Lovely piece, from inside your home and kitchen. The origin of pretzels surprised me no less. Reminds me of the lights I see sold in Mea Sha’arim for Sukka decorations, straight out of the lights in every non-Jewish home in the US at Xmas time. Of course the residents of Mea Sh’ haven’t a clue what those lights suggest to me.

    A translation favor, if I may. My Tikun lel Shavuot shiur (usually from 2-3AM, so 15 minutes is plenty because they’re all asleep by 2:15) is entitled “דְבָרִים שֶׁאֵין לָהֶם שִׁעוּר”, starting of course with Mishne Peah 1:1 and Shabbat 127a. But I’ve also come across several great modern Israeli poems – one by Dahlia Ravikovitch and the other by Rivka Miriam, and since I also shall teach this to my class at Beit Yehudit/Ginot Ha’Ir, by Zoom, I want English translations. I don’t know if such exist, and since the poems are not long, I’ve tried a hand at it (attached, the Rivka Miriam poem on page 2).

    These poems add a lot, but I’d like to be pretty accurate. I’m pretty satisfied with the first, but the Rivka Miriam one has me puzzled (pretzeled?) at the end.

    Am I being too chutzpadik to ask you to take a look?

    Rav todot, best, Daniel

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