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Kabbalah and Tahini: Early Modern Sesame Treats

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Time: 16th century | Place: Safed (then part of the Ottoman Empire, now Israel) |  Language: Hebrew | Book: unpublished manuscript |

Imagine if Pope Francis suddenly came out with a cookbook. It would be totally unexpected, in large part because we don’t think of religious or political leaders as people who would consider recipes important. But this recipe by Hayyim Vital, a sixteenth-century Jewish leader living in the Ottoman Empire, highlights the importance of food preparation and practical knowledge even for a person who mostly wrote heavy philosophical works.

Hayyim Vital was born in Safed on the Sea of Galilee in 1542, and became famous as a genius student of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism (not exactly the same version popularized by Madonna and other celebrities nowadays). He copied down and published many of the teachings of his mentor, Isaac Luria, in a work called Etz Hayyim (Tree of Life – also a play on his name) and thus helped spread the study of Kabbalah to the wider Jewish world. The only other work that Vital published during his lifetime was his autobiography, The Book of Visions.

Manuscript copy of one of Vital's works (this isn't his copy, but a copy made later after he died), showing kabbalistic diagrams

Manuscript copy of one of Vital’s works (this isn’t his copy, but a copy made later after he died), showing kabbalistic diagrams

 

One way to make sense of a spiritual leader writing recipes is that the concept of a “recipe” in his time included more than just cooking instruction. The recipe below derives from a manuscript attributed to Hayyim Vital based on handwriting, which contains a variety of “recipes”: food recipes, folk remedies, magical incantations, medical prescriptions, alchemical recipes, and cosmetic formulas. This was all part of a genre called “practical Kabbalah,” through which one could use esoteric knowledge to effect change in the world. But even though it was called “practical,” this was, without a doubt, secret knowledge, meant to be guarded by the privileged few. In this way, Vital’s writing fits into a larger genre of “how-to” books and “books of secrets” that became ubiquitous throughout the early modern period, impacting science as much as traditional academic disciplines. What this reveals is an individual working not only on a theoretical plane, but also on an experimental level.

The recipe presented here is Vital’s take on how to make “ḥaligo’ah,” which is fairly similar to the halvah that we know and love today. Living in the Ottoman world, Vital was exposed to the local foods that surrounded him, so we find lots of sesame, figs, honey, wine, yogurt, and nuts. The Galilee in general and Safed in particular had become an important center of trade in the 16th century, and different aspects of the Safed economy are reflected in many of the agricultural products that appear in Vital’s recipes.

16th century map of the Holy Land, which includes Safed (here called Saphet)

16th century map of the Holy Land, which includes Safed (here called Saphet)

From the Archive to the Kitchen:

  • Working with the senses: Vital’s language emphasizes trial through the senses: for example, you know that nuts are fully toasted when you “hear the sound of them cracking when you chew them between your teeth.” We tried to translate his instructions into the way we cook, but it was not always simple.
  • Proportions: like many early modern recipes, Vital wrote his instructions without the standard units we use today (grams, pounds or standardized cups that all have 240 ml). In his time, people used measurements that were intuitive and relevant to them. Some recipes call for things “as big as an olive” and others use relative proportions. This recipe calls for portions: 1.5 potions of tahini for every 2 portions of honey. We translated that to simple standardized US baking cups of 240 ml. (It was easier than the recipes we tried to recreate without any quantities, like this one.
  • Heat: The first time we tried this recipe (a few years back), it came out very liquidy, and the halvah was more like a paste or a spread. This is probably because we didn’t use a thermometer, because we were trying not to use anything more modern than what Vital would have had. But it’s absolutely crucial to get the sugar syrup heated to 245 degrees F – otherwise the whole mixture doesn’t congeal properly. So this time we used a thermometer, and it was a game changer. In this case, modern technology makes it much easier to get to the right temperature, so that you don’t have to go only by visual observation and do the guesswork as to whether the syrup is hot enough.

 

Our 2019 reconstruction

Original Recipe:

“And now let’s make clear how to make the khaligo’ah. If you want to make ḥaligo’ah t’hinah: take tehina that is made from sesame that is ground in the mill, as is familiar. The amount: 2 portions in a wide bronze mug. Pour over it one portion of the boiled honey, or 1.5 portions. And allow the honey to cool properly. After that, mix and knead them together well with your hands. If you see that the tehina is releasing oil while you are mixing it with the honey, add a little bit more honey. But know that to make khaligo’ah t’hinah you must not boil the honey too much, because that is not good for it [don’t make it too hot]. Indeed, the amount that it should be boiled is until the honey is sticky like dough, and not more than this.

If you want to make khaligo’ah of sesame or nuts or almonds: Toast these things well on a flame, as was mentioned with the flour above, that you should hear the sound of them cracking when you chew them between your teeth. When the sesame, nuts, or almonds are hot, while they are still on the fire, pour the well-boiled honey over them so that they will become mixed together well, and let the honey rest there until it is cooled, and after that mix them together well. The amount is 1 portion of honey and 1.5 portions or 2 of sesame. And you can do this with nuts or almonds.”

How we did it:

  • 1.5 cups tehina
  • 2 cups honey or sugar
  • 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
  • zest of one lemon (our addition)
  1. Line a baking pan with parchment paper.
  2. Combine sugar/honey, vanilla, and lemon zest with ½ cup water in a saucepan, stirring it periodically so that the sugar dissolves. The mixture should simmer into a syrup, until the temperature on your thermometer reads 245 degrees F.
  3. Meanwhile, measure tehina into the bowl of a stand mixture with the paddle attachment, and begin to beat the tehina on medium speed. Once the syrup hits the right temperature, drizzle it into the tahini with the mixer running. Mix until everything is incorporated and it begins to have the texture of fudge. This should take 1-1.5 minutes.
  4. Speed is of the essence in this step. QUICKLY transfer the mixture to the baking pan with parchment paper. (If you don’t work fast enough, the mixture will harden and stick to the sides of the mixing bowl.) Use your spatula or your hands to smooth out the halvah in the pan.
  5. Cool to room temperature and cut into squares.

Further Reading:

Our Leftovers From This Post:

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