The Christmas Latke
I like the Food Channel on television. The pleasure of watching the exquisite art of preparing a meal is almost equal to the pleasure of consuming it. Please indulge me on this score as we contemplate the holiday season.
Many Christmas customs include food. It may be fruitcake or pfeffernusse, roast turkey or standing rib roast. My mother traditionally broiled grapefruit for breakfast each Christmas morning.
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah is also celebrated with countless culinary delights from around the world. But in my opinion, one food trumps them all: the latke. This delicious concoction, commonly known as a potato pancake, is not easy to prepare. With just the right combination of grated potato (water strained out), onion, garlic and salt, you form pancakes and fry them to perfection in pure olive oil. A latke ought to be golden brown and crispy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside.
I think the latke is the perfect food to reflect on this season. Whether you are celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah or both (as my family does), I commend the eating of latkes for your holiday celebration this season. (See recipe.)
In Jewish tradition, those of us of Eastern European descent eat latkes at Hanukkah, while Jews from Spain, Africa, Israel, etc. eat other fried foods for the holiday. The story of Hanukkah tells how Israel recaptured Jerusalem from the Syrian army and rededicated the Temple, which included rekindling the sacred candelabrum. There are legends regarding the oil needed to rekindle that candelabrum, and so olive oil remains a central symbol of the festival.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE OIL
Olive oil was a staple in the everyday life of ancient Israel, but it also had sacred uses.
Of the 204 mentions of oil in the Bible, most refer to an aspect of worship. Pure olive oil was necessary, not only for the sacred candelabrum in the Temple, but also for the sacrifices on the altar of incense.
A second sacred use for oil was anointing. To anoint something or someone with oil meant that they were set apart for service unto God. Priests were anointed. Kings were anointed. The word “Messiah” (Moshiach in Hebrew) means “anointed one,” so the promise of the coming of Messiah is inextricably linked to oil as well. Of the many predictions concerning Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures, the author of Hebrews singled out Psalm 45:7 as an important prophecy: “But to the Son He says: ‘You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions'” (Hebrews 1:9).
So when we eat a latke we not only remember the story of Hanukkah but we should also think of the promise of the Anointed One, our Messiah Y’shua whose birth we celebrate this season.
Yet the oil is most important at Hanukkah because of the light it provided in ancient times. The Temple candelabrum was a symbol of the eternal presence of God and, as such, was never to be extinguished. “And you shall command the children of Israel that they bring you pure oil of pressed olives for the light, to cause the lamp to burn continually” (Exodus 27:20). Yet the invading Syrians did extinguish the eternal flame shining in that Temple, directly challenging God’s promise of enduring presence with His people.
The delight of the Hanukkah story is how God’s light triumphed over darkness. That is why Hanukkah (which means “dedication”) is also known as the Festival of Light. The triumph of light over darkness symbolizes God’s triumph over evil in this world. Throughout history we see example after example of dark forces that were about to triumph, but were ultimately conquered when God brought His light to shine victory.
This triumph of light over darkness is seen most clearly in the advent of our Messiah Jesus. John tells us, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5). The festival of light was a wonderful foreshadowing of Jesus, the Light of the world.
APPLYING THE LESSONS
It is not only in the eating of the latkes but in their preparation that we can find pleasure and meaning during this season. Much of food’s appeal is in its fragrance, and latkes provide an olfactory experience that is hard to beat. The aroma of potato, onion and garlic frying in oil builds anticipation and enjoyment before the latkes are ready and lingers long after they are consumed. I think back to worship in ancient Israel, and especially the altar of incense.
Olive oil has its own scent but when it was used on the altar of incense it was blended with spices to create a fragrant offering to the Lord. The priests would burn the oil mixed with the incense before the Lord, and it was enjoyable to Him and to all the worshipers within whiff of the altar. No doubt the Lord preferred frankincense and the like to onion and garlic when it came to that altar! But the point is, holiday aromas like latkes can remind us of the pleasure that worship brings, not only to the Lord as He receives it, but to His worshipers as we offer it.
Likewise, when it came to some of the sacrifices, worshipers were invited to eat the sacrifices along with the priests (See Leviticus 10:13). The joys of smelling and eating savory food can all be part of our worship and celebration before God. So making and eating latkes, when done as to the Lord, can help us enter into worship during this holy season. For those of us who know Y’shua, the aromas and the tastes can be part of our worship to God for His ultimate triumph over the dark tyranny of sin and its hold on this world, through the birth of His Son Jesus.
The fragrance of the holiday season also reminds us of a sacred responsibility before the Lord as a result of our Savior’s advent. Paul reminds us, “Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:14-15).
The coming of Messiah into this world brought new potential for the knowledge of God to be spread throughout the world. That wonderful knowledge is portrayed as a pleasing aroma, the fragrance of Christ. Those of us who know Jesus become His fragrance, as far as God is concerned. We are the means by which people can smell the aroma of His saving grace.
I hope I have given you ample reason to try a few latkes this month as part of your holiday celebrations. But even if you don’t have the chance to taste this delightful treat, may the oil of gladness anoint your celebrations, and may the fragrant message of God’s saving power encourage you, both to worship and to bear witness to our Messiah Jesus, the Light of the world.
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter, Ilana is a recent graduate of Biola. His son, Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife, Shaina, have one daughter, Nora, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.