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Rosh Hashanah Feast Serves Up Symbolism

Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah are filled with rituals, tradition, and symbolism that nourish the body and the soul through food, and we’re not talking about brisket and matzo ball soup that always earn a spot on the menu.

The rich and abundant foods served on Rosh Hashanah are called simanim, which means “signs” or” indicators.” Like the special foods we eat at a Passover seder, simanim give us a taste of Jewish wisdom by directing us to improve ourselves and return to a life with more purpose and meaning. This idea of teshuva is what the High Holidays is all about, little did we know it tasted so good, with a dash of Yiddish pun.

So, let’s dig in!

On the first night of the Rosh Hashanah, 5781, which is September 19, we hold a special ceremony at home and recite blessings over a variety of foods that symbolize our wishes for the year ahead.  Some of the most popular symbolic foods include fish, honey, spinach, carrots, cabbage, pomegranate, apples, leeks and dates, which can be blended into recipes or served individually on a seder plate.

Here’s a taste of the festive meal served on Rosh Hashanah.

CHALLAH

Bread is the staple of life that sustains us, and this is never more true than on Jewish holidays, and, of course, Shabbat when we everything we do and eat is elevated to a holier place. On Rosh Hashanah, even the challah has an extra special look and taste. This braided egg bread is shaped into spirals or rounds to symbolize continuity, the cycle of the year, and is often dipped in honey before eating and shared around the table. The circular shape is also symbolic of a King’s crown.  On Rosh Hashanah we declare God as King of the universe. Try this homemade honey challah recipe!

Here’s some more interesting facts to chew on about why challah is round on Rosh Hashanah. When it comes to Judaism, there’s always more to learn, and like a circle the learning and growing never ends!

Before we dip our challah in honey, we say:

Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam hamotzi lehem min ha’aretz.

“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

APPLES AND HONEY

Apples and honey are the classic combo associated with Rosh Hashanah. The fall season is ripe for picking apples of all colors—red, yellow, green—and provide a fun family outdoor activity. Apples are one the sturdiest fruits that survive the changing climate, and honey is nature’s sweetest foods, so combined together is irresistible. I like to core an apple and pour honey into the hollow part  as a centerpiece, served with fruit slices for dipping.  With the loads of apples you pick, try a new recipe like apple crisp, baked apples, and of course apple kugle.

The tradition of dipping apples in honey dates back hundreds of years and was mentioned in the writings of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, who was born around 1269 and fled with his family to Spain in 1303. He was the first to mention the custom of apples dipped in honey in his legal compendium, Arbah Turim (written circa 1310), citing it as a German tradition.

We dip the apple in honey and say:

Baruch atah Ado-nai, Ehlo-haynu melech Ha-olam, Borai p’ree ha’aitz.
“Blessed are you L-rd, our G-d ruler of the world, Creator of the fruit of the tree.”

Take a nibble and then recite the following brief prayer:

“May it be Your will, Hashem, our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, that You renew for us a good and sweet year.”

HONEY CAKE

Like challah, honey cakes are symbolic of the desire for a sweet, positive upcoming year. Most family recipes include spices such as cloves, cinnamon and allspice, with some variations calling for coffee, tea or rum mixed in for greater flavor. This honey cake recipe adds walnuts to add a depth of flavor to the spice and this decadent bundt cake is drizzled with icing.

POMEGRANATE OR NEW FRUIT

On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, we enjoy a “new fruit,” or seasonal produce that we haven’t tried yet this season. As one of the seven species of Israel, the pomegranate is the most common new fruit eaten on this holiday.  The pomegranate also symbolizes gratefulness for being alive and allowing us to taste all the delicious fruit the world has to offer. This special fruit is also known for its abundant seeds—613 to be exact to represent the same number of mitzvot in the Torah—which tell us to be fruitful and multiply, whether that means fertility or good deeds or both. Here’s an easy way to seed a pomegranate.

Now, how about a pomegranate martini to toast the New Year?

If a whole pomegranate is hard to find in the grocery store, you can buy the seeds and eat them by the spoonful, or any new fruit will do. One year we tried a star fruit, or carambola, a sweet and sour fruit that has the shape of a five- point star and is native to tropical Southeast Asia.

Whatever new fruit you choose, it’s tradition to say the Shehechiyanu blessing (celebrating new and unusual experiences) on Rosh Hashanah. The blessing thanks God for keeping us alive and well to enjoy this special experience, and on a deeper level, reflects our desire to recreate ourselves and make ourselves better people in the coming year.

We say the Shehechiyanu:

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam shehechiyanu v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us life, and sustained us, and brought us to this day.

We also say:

“May it be Your will, God, that our merits increase as the seeds of pomegranate.”

FISH

Given that Rosh Hashanah translates to “head of the year,” a head has to make an appearance somewhere on the menu. The head represents hope that we are likened to a head and move forward, and not a tail that is stuck in the past. While this may include the head of a sheep or rooster, it’s often as simple as a whole roast fish. As a bonus, fish symbolize fertility and abundance. The ever-swimming fish also symbolizes a new year of awareness, persistence, and hard work. A head of cabbage, lettuce, or garlic can also be used.

Some fish recipes to try include lemon-garlic baked salmonlemon herb baked halibut, or Indian-spiced salmon that pair nicely with this rainbow slaw.

We say:

“May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that we be as the head and not as the tail.”

A fish is also considered to be a symbol of fertility and blessing. We say:

“May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that we be fruitful and multiply like fish.”

COUSCOUS WITH SEVEN VEGETABLES

This is one of the few savory options you’ll see on the table. The multitude of couscous beads represent the number of blessings you hope to have, while the number seven is considered fortuitous, as God made the world in seven days.

Adding colorful ingredients to the meal pleases the pupil and the palate, with this couscous vegetable dish.

LEEKS, CHARD, SPINACH

Like most Rosh Hashanah foods, the symbolism is tied to a pun on its Hebrew name–in this case, a close cousin of the word karet, which translates to “cut.” Eating leeks means hoping those who wish to hurt us will instead be cut off and their bad intentions punished. My mom used to add leeks to her chicken soup for a subtle flavor.

For a healthy lighter dish to balance the heavy meal, try spinach salad with pomegranate.

We say:

“May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be cut off.”

BEETS

The Hebrew word for beetsselek, is similar to the word for “remove.” They’re eaten to express the hope that our enemies will depart. In Aramaic, the language of the Gemara, silka referred to a leafy green vegetable akin to spinach. Some maintain that this leafy green is the original symbolic food for Rosh Hashanah and that beets are a more recent development.

Purple and golden beets tossed  with greens, goat cheese and walnuts is a tasty way to dress up a salad, while other tasty options are roasted sweet potatoes and beets and Moroccan sweet beet salad.

We say:

“May it be Your will, God, that our adversaries be removed.”

DATES

Sweet dates, another of the seven species of Israel, may not seem to have much in common with leeks. But the Hebrew name, t’marim, from the word “to consume,” also relates to punishing enemies, in this case, finishing them off.  Another thought is that eating dates actually symbolizes ending our own prejudices. By the way, when the Torah refers to Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey” it means dates. I snack on Medjool dates like candy, one of my favorite souvenirs I brought home from Israel.  Many of these foods can be combined into one glorious recipe like this sweet stew called tzimmes.

We say:

“May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be consumed.”

CARROTS

Gezer, the Hebrew word for carrot, sounds very much like g’zar, the Hebrew word for decree. Eating carrots on Rosh Hashanah is meant to express our desire that God will nullify any negative decrees against us. Furthermore, the Yiddish words for “carrots” and “more”—mern and mer, respectively, symbolize the desire for increased blessings in the new year.

Here’s  a few more vegetarian dishes chock full or carrots, such as Moroccan carrot and chickpea tagine and scrumptious carrot cake with cream cheese frosting.

We say:

“May it be Your will, our God and the God of our forefathers, that our merits increase.”

BLACK-EYED PEAS, GREEN BEANS OR FENUGREEK

Rubia, which may refer to several different types of small beans, or even fenugreek, is reminiscent of the word yirbu, “to increase.” These foods symbolize the hope for a fruitful year filled with merit.

A few recipes that might bring you good luck using these ingredients are Moroccan black-eyed peas (cowpeas), sesame green beans and methi paratha (fenugreek paratha).

GOURDS

The Hebrew word for gourd is related to the Hebrew word k’ra that means “to rip or to tear” or “to announce.” We ask that God rip up any evil decree against us and that our merits be announced before Him.

Fall is the perfect time to serve gourds as they are in peak season. These soups make great appetizers, including Moroccan pumpkin and chickpea soup and butternut squash soup which I eat year round and sometimes leave the veggies chunky instead of pureed.

We say:

“May it be Your will, God, that the decree of our sentence should be torn apart, and may our merits be proclaimed before You.”

Now that we’ve feasted, save room for the final greeting,

“L’shana Tova – Ketivah vi-chatima Tova.”

This means: “For a good year – You should be written and sealed in the good (Book of Life).” Often, we see the translation as “Happy Sweet New Year,” but the real intent behind the greeting is to have a year filled with meaning and purpose and from there may true happiness follow.

In addition to these symbolic foods, the cherished family recipes like Bubbe’s brisket and matzo ball soup passed from generations are a way to honor our past and look forward to a sweet year ahead. And that, too, is what Rosh Hashanah is all about.