Maimouna: When Jews & Muslims Share their Sustenance

The custom of a post-Passover chametz party (when Jews may again eat leavened bread and other foods traditionally forbidden on Pesach) has been brought to its highest level by the Jews of North Africa, who hold a great celebration called Maimouna on the evening and day after Pesach.

Some have suggested that the day is named for Maimon ben Joseph, the father of Rambam or Maimonides, and that the day was the yohrzeit (death-anniversary) of Maimon himself. Not only was his son one of the greatest of the rabbinic commentators and codifiers; Maimon was himself a leading scholar of his generation, lived in the Moroccan city of Fez, and died about 1170. Much of his work focused on Islamic-Jewish relations; it both took Islam seriously as a monotheistic religion, and offered Jews who had been forcibly converted to Islam ways of continuing their adherence to Torah. His work was therefore of great significance to Jews living in Muslim countries — which might help explain the fact and the name of the celebration on his yohrtzeit.

But there is another explanation of Maimouna and its name that seems much more likely in the light of actual relationships between Jews and Muslims in Morocco. (My teacher in this matter is David Waskow, who years ago spent several months in Morocco that spanned Pesach and Ramadan.) The custom grew up centuries ago, and still survives, that on the evening after Pesach ends, when Jews can again eat chametz but have not yet had time to bake bread in their own homes, the Muslim community brings them loaves of bread. And at the end of the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day, Jews bring the Muslim community some food to begin the great Feast of Breaking-the-Fast, Eid–el-Fitr. These gifts between the two communities are given with loving joy.

Maimouna starts with an evening meal of dairy foods symbolic of birth and fertility — milk, figs, ears of wheat, and pancakes with butter and honey. Often a live fish, swimming in a bowl, is on the table, probably reminding the diners that fish are considered the most fertile of creatures. Alongside the fish bowl is likely to be a bowl of flour in which golden rings are hidden. The chacham (sage) of each local Jewish community dips a sprig of mint in a bowl of milk and sprinkles the milk on the heads of the community’s members. There is a great bustle of visiting and sharing foods from one household to another. On the following day there are large picnics at beaches, fields, and cemeteries.

In the light of all this, it may well be that “Maimouna” comes from “maimon,” the Hebrew word for “prosperity.”

In Israel, Jews of Moroccan background carry on the Maimouna tradition with each other, including a large get-together in Jerusalem. In America, some Jewish and Muslim communities have made Maimouna and the end of Ramadan a time for peaceful visiting to redress the fear and anger that have sometimes beset the two cultures in recent generations.

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