by Elizabeth Barkany
Seudat Yitro (or Sheoudet Ytrou) (or La Fête des Garçons) by Elisabeth Barkany
I chose to speak about Seudat Yitro because it a unique Jewish Tunisian Tradition and because of its connection with Shavuot as it is in the parasha of Ytro (Shemot) that we receive the 10 commandments.
Seudat Yitro is a Jewish Holiday like no other in the Jewish calendar. There is no mention of this holiday in the Torah or in any Shulchan Aruch or meguila or any other traditional book. It’s not a Yom Tov and it’s not what’s called a Chag. Yet in the Jewish Tunisian calendar it holds a prominent place and it is one of the most anticipated festival because it’s joyful and because it is a MINHAG. And if you think Minhag is important in Judaism then think twice and a bit more when it comes to a JEWISH TUNISIAN MINHAG!
What is it?
It is a big party held in honour of every Jewish boy. It occurs every year on the Thursday of the reading of the Parashat Yitro.
Young boys would go to shul in the morning (or supposed to) and read the aseret hadibrot.
In the evening they are treated to a big festive meal. Traditionally all foods are served in miniature size on miniature plates and the dinner table looks rather like a Teddy bear picnic. All cutlery, cups, pots and pans used were a mini size just like “la dinette”utensils used by children in their cookery games. This party is about children. So everything is made fit to their measure. Traditionally a stuffed pigeon is served as the main savoury dish and some families with many boys would normally have one pigeon per boy. Nowadays Kosher pigeons are hard to come by, so a little poussin is used instead. And the table will be illuminated by tiny candles of different colours and will most often boast as a centre-piece an eye-catching, delicious and noble pièce montée. (croquenbouches/ profiteroles/caramel..).
Other foods will also be served in miniature. They are the Kemia (or lavish Jewish aperitifs/nibbles /nuts and salads), a mini maakoude or minina (savoury cake). For sweet treats mini makroudes, manicoties (dabla in Arabic), mini yoyos and boules de miel (a sort of rich arab doughnut), coloured mini marzipan shaped fruit etc.
And to water down all these sumptuous delicacies, lets’ not forget the most important of all: The quintessential Jewish Tunisian Beverage : la Boukha or “eau de vie”, literally “water of life”.
So why do we celebrate it and does it all come from?
No –one really knows the origin of this celebration. There is no formal historical documentation about it.
“Se'udat Yitro, or Jethro's festive meal, is considered mys-terious even by those committed to its practice. The lack of ability to point to its origin or to spell out its meaning does not make it any less significant. On the con-trary, the vagueness surrounding the festive event, and the varying ways that it is enacted, seem to add to its attractiveness.” Pr Harvey Goldberg Hebrew University Jerusalem Article:The Riddle of Se'udat Yitro: Interpreting a Celebration among Tunisia's Jews (01-2011)
There are 3 possibilities
1) Legend has it that a plague broke out in Tunis at the beginning of 18th century and mainly affected the Jewish community, particularly young boys. During the week of the reading of the Sidra of Yitro, a dove landed in Tunis and fed on plagued waste and then flew away. Suddenly, from then on, the epidemics ceased and the boys were cured. In order to commemorate this miracle, a big feast was organised and has been celebrated ever since in honour of young Jewish males who would receive every year a gift of a pigeon as a symbol of their survival. Ok that’s one hypothesis. It’s the legend I grew up on It’s cute but there is no historical evidence of any plague affecting Jews at the times.
2) The second possible explanation stems directly from the Parasha of Yitro itself. Moshe greets his father-in-law who turns up with Moshe’s wife Tzippora and their 2 sons with a grand festive meal in honour of Yitro who recognized Hashem. Yitro notices that Moshe is busy all day with the children of Israel and advises Moshe to delegate some of his work by appointing some able honest and God fearing men to lead and take care of all the needs of Am Israel. These delegates were our first community leaders and presumably, Jewish communities celebrated the anniversary of this first appointment for a long period of time in a festive event called Haguigat-Nesiim (Feast of the Princes). For some reason, over the years, this celebration fell out of fashion and survived only among Tunisian Jews who, on the Thursday of the reading of the Sedra of Yitro, do not include the Tahanounim in the morning prayers just like on a traditional Yom Tov. So why do the Tunisian Jews still celebrate this event and why did they turn this Haguiga /party of the Princes into “La Fête des Garçons”? Well, the advocates of this thesis refer to the same text of the Seudat Yitro in the Parasha, stating that Moshe was so happy to see that both his sons were circumcised thanks to his wife Tzipora that he saved a part of the feast for the attention of his sons, presenting it on small vessels, small enough for a small child. And this is how the Tunisian Jews who have a tendency to keep traditions and rituals in biblical form, have come to celebrate the Seudat Yitro year in year out in honour of their sons until the day they marry. Again this sounds plausible but not verified by historians.
3) The 3rd explanation finds its source in the “Pirke Avot” and also refers to the Parasha of Ytro. In this parasha, Hashem gives us the 10 commandments.
Our ancient rabbis decided that the life of an individual should be characterised by different phrases. At the age of 5, a boy should be taught the written Torah; at the age of 13 a boy should celebrate his Bar-Mitsva, and at the age of 15, he should focus on learning the Mishna. As a result, the young child was expected to read the very powerful Ten Commandments at the “Ketab” (cheder) at the tender age of just 5, for the first time. As you can imagine, this task of reading the 10 commandments out loud was very daunting for the young boy. So for the purpose of encouragement, the rabbis/teachers organised a party (like chaguigat siddur) as a reward. This feast was originally held privately within the ketab. It was called “Hinoukh Neharim“ and was exclusive to this age group. Nevertheless, so much “Nachas” could not possibly be confined to the walls of the Talmud Tora and the feast was soon extended at home by an even bigger feast by the proud Jewish mums and dads, grandpas and grand mas etc. The Chief Rabbi Abraham Taieb known as <<Baba Sidi >>, who died in 1741, advised all parents to get all their sons to benefit from this feast and to encourage every single one of them, not just the youngest, to learn and revise the 10 commandments so that they can understand them and be guided by them better. A special Seudat Yitro Prayer Sheet was then published. It contains many prayers to be recited before and after consuming different foods and drinks and it is headed by the Ten Commandments. It also contains an abridged version of Bircat hamazon and the Shema drafted especially for the Young ones.
In my memory, the day had a resonance of Purim. The children were spoiled and happyly ran around in the street and exploded noisy “pétards” (or firecrackers) all over the place. The shops displayed signs and all the goodies for La fête des Garçons. The boys were truly the kings of the day.
The Jewish Community counted around 100 thousand people before Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1955. Nowadays it’s reduced to about 1000 members who live mainly in the capital Tunis and the Island of Djerba. However the Tunisian Jews who left, their children and grand-children who live in France, Israel and other countries continue to celebrate this old and great custom of Seudat Yitro for and with their sons as long as they are single with as much enthusiasm and fervour.