A Sweet Treat from Crete

Material history is often overlooked, and the material history of halakhah is no exception. As new products and technologies become available, they change life dramatically and enable new ways of thinking about the world. Coffee is probably the most famous example of material history shaping intellectual and halakhic history (thanks to Elliot Horowitz’s indispensable case study), but it is one of myriad examples. Consider, for example, the affect that refrigeration had on the study of the laws of salting meat (melichah). What was once common knowledge has become an area of specialization. And so forth.

Here is another example: Some innovative Mediterranean sugar refiners made Pesach a good deal more enjoyable.

Section 48 of the Minhagim of R. Shalom of [Wiener-]Neustadt states that the common custom is to refrain from eating sugar on Pesach, because flour was added to the mixture in the final stage of the refining process. Then, on the last day of one Pesach in Neustadt, a member of the study circle named R. Zanvel brought sugar from Crete that he was certain had no flour in it, so they all partook from the sugar he brought.

I do not know why flour was added during the refinement process, and why that step was skipped in Crete, but this episode takes place in the late-14th or early-15th century, just as the Cretan sugar industry began to flourish, along with other Christian-controlled areas of the Mediterranean Basin.

From J.H. Galloway, “The Mediterranean Sugar Industry”

J.H. Galloway’s article, “The Mediterranean Sugar Industry” (Geographical Review 67:2 [1977], pp. 177-194), offers a fascinating view of the industry in the period after the Black Plague, the decline of certain sugar-producing areas, and the rise of others. Apropos of an episode that took place on Pesach, the article also describes the consolidation of the industry on plantations and the increasing use of slave labor (he mentions Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, and Tartars) in sugar production – long before the New World entered the picture.

Perhaps it is thanks to this R. Zanvel that Ashkenazim no longer refrain from sugar on Pesach. It seems that we dodged a bullet there. There is one other suggestive aspect of this source.

During this period, when Crete was ruled by Venice, it was known by a different name: Candia. In the source mentioned above, the Hebrew place name is קנדי (which, based on the evidence, we feel comfortable identifying as Crete or Heraklion, the island’s largest city). In English sources, too, the island and/or its largest city are known as Candy!

Did the Cretan (Candian) sugar industry and its method of refining without flour give us the with the word “candy”? Alas, no etymological dictionaries make this connection. It was a fun hypothesis, though.

Here is the passage from R. Shalom’s Minhagim:

מנהגי מהר”ש מנוישטט סימן מח
וכן נמי נוהגין שלא לאכול צוקר בפסח כי משימין בתוכה קמח, ואע”פ כשמבשלין הקנים שיש בהם הצוקר מבשלין אותן ד’ או ה’ פעמים שאין משימין בו קמח, מ”מ באחרונה משימין קמח ביורה, ולכן אין אוכלין שום צוקר בפסח. הגה’. שמעתי ממה”ר שלום ז”ל שפעם אחת אכלו הלומדים יחדיו בעיר נוישטט בי”ט האחרון של פסח, ונתן להם הח”ר זנוויל ז”ל צוקר שהביא עמו מעיר קנדי, ואמר שברי לו שאין בתוכו שום חימוץ ואכלוהו עמו

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