Israel Holds Its First Ever Public Bsisa, a Women-Centered Tunisian Jewish Ritual
On Rosh Chodesh Nisan—the first of the Jewish month of Nisan, the month containing Passover—Tunisian and Libyan Jewish families perform the ritual of bsisa. The ritual serves as a bridge between the holidays of Purim and Passover and commemorates the building of the mishkan (tabernacle). On April 1, 2014, Israel’s first ever public bsisa was held at the First Station in Jerusalem. Israelis from Tunisia and Libya, as well as the general Israeli public, attended the event.
The word bsisa refers to a mixture made of wheat, barley, and oil. These three ingredients constituted the offerings made in the mishkan and beit hamikdash (temple), and tradition holds that Moses made the bsisa mixture to celebrate the completion of the mishkan, which took place on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Today, to improve flavor, families usually add other ingredients as well, depending on where they come from and traditions they hold. Common additions include silan (date honey), almonds and other nuts, dried fruit, and sweets and candies. Spices such as fennel, coriander, cumin, and cinnamon are often added as well.
The ingredients for the bsisa are placed together in a big bowl. Women add their gold jewelry to the bowl to commemorate the gold that women donated to build the mishkan, and as a symbol for wealth and prosperity. The family gathers around and the head of the household (in some families considered to be the mother and in others the father) places the key to the house inside the bsisa. While mixing the ingredients with the key, a blessing is recited in Judeo-Arabic:
Ya Ftach Ble Miftach Ya Atai Ble Mna Arzekna Varzook Mina Varzook LeAbeid LeKoololina.
You who opens without a key, You who gives without any donation, Give (success) to us and to others, And give to all of us the believers.
The mother then recites other blessings for the family and for wealth. Some families read Exodus 38-40 in Parashat Pekudei, which details the completion of the mishkan. Afterwards, each member of the household eats some of the bsisa.
The tradition of bsisa is probably a vestige of Minhag Eretz Yisrael. After the Jewish people were expelled from the land of Israel by the Babylonians in 586 BCE large numbers settled in Babylon. However, a small group of Jews stayed in the Galilee region of modern-day Israel. Because of the physical distance separating the two communities, two distinct traditions emerged, coming to be called Minhag Eretz Yisrael (Palestinian tradition) and Minhag Bavel (Babylonian tradition). According to Minhag Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish new year begins on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, and bsisa probably served to celebrate the new year. Over time, however, Minhag Bavel took over, which is why Jews today celebrate Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) on the first of Tishrei. Nonetheless, bsisa has endured as a tradition among Tunisian and Libyan Jewish communities.
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Peretz-Rubin, Pascal. ״בסיסה/בשישה לראש חודש ניסן״ [Bsisa for Rosh Chodesh Nisan]. Pascal Peretz-Rubin, April 1, 2022. https://www.pascalpr.co.il/ סיסה-לראש-חודש-ניסן/
Roumani, Judith. “‘Bsisa’ Celebration and Performance for Rosh Chodesh Nisan.” Sephardic Horizons, April 1, 2014. https://www.sephardichorizons.org/Volume4/Issue3/bsisa.html.
“?סגולה לפרנסה: מהו מקור המנהג 'בסיסה' ואיך מכינים” [Talisman for livelihood: What is the source of the ‘Bsisa’ custom and how do you prepare it?]. Srugim, April 4, 2019. https://www.srugin.co.il /329037-מתכון-לבסיסה-מנהג-בסיסה..
״ליל הבסיסה״ [Night of the Bsisa]. הלוז העברי. Accessed June 13, 2022. https://haluzhaivri.org.il/page/30306.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Israel Holds Its First Ever Public Bsisa, a Women-Centered Tunisian Jewish Ritual." (Viewed on November 29, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/apr/01/2014/israel-holds-its-first-ever-public-bsisa-women-centered-tunisian-jewish-ritual>.