Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year is celebrated on the 1st day of the month of Tishrei. (See September 20 post about the Jewish calendar). Often called “the Birthday of the World,” Rosh Hashanah is a time of discovery, introspection, and new beginnings. The holiday is filled with symbolism from start to finish. The celebration is marked by the sounding of the shofar or ram’s horn, one of the oldest instruments in the world. This is symbolic of the binding of Isaac by Abraham. It also reminds people of the blasts which were sounded at the creation of the world.
Rosh Hashanah ushers in the Yamim Noraim, or Days of Awe, more commonly known as the High Holy Days, the ten most solemn days of the Jewish year, dedicated to deep introspection. It is a highly symbolic period, marked by symbolic behavior and actions. It concludes with Yom Kippur (starting on the eve of October 8, this year).
Rosh Hashanah is not only the New Year; it marks the beginning of the agricultural year in ancient Israel. Many food associated with the harvest are enjoyed. In addition, a number of the foods prepared for the holiday meals are rich in meaning as written in the Talmud: “Since you hold that symbols are meaningful, everyone should make it a habit of eating the following on the New Year, black-eyed peas, leeks, beets, and dates.”
Dinner on Rosh Hashanah eve, erev Rosh Hashanah, starts with the blessing over wine, the Kiddush, to sanctify the holiday. Next the bread, a round challah that looks like a crown, is blessed. It symbolizes the hope for a well-rounded year, a year with no beginning and no end, maybe even long life.
The Rosh Hashanah challah may be shaped in many ways, each with special meaning. A ladder represents the goal to ascend to good deeds. This wish could refer to the belief that during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God opens three books: the Book of Life with names of the just and faithful, the Book of Death with names of the wicked and unworthy, and the third book with names of those whose fate has not been decided. Their behavior during the Days of Awe determines into which book their names will be entered.
I usually make bird challah. In Yiddish it is called a foigel challah and it symbolizes the hope that prayers will rise, “Thus the Lord of Hosts, like a bird hovering over its young, will be a shield over Jerusalem, he will shield her and deliver her, standing over her and delivering her” (Isaiah 31). Other shapes are a hand, symbolic for reaching for blessings or to be inscribed for a good year and a key, symbolic that the door of heaven may be opened to admit prayers.
Next everyone dips bread or an apple into a bowl of honey which symbolizes the sweetness in the New Year. Apple, a round fruit, symbolizes the wish for a year full circle of joy. Gemetria is the association between the Hebrew letters and numbers. The word apple, “tapuach,” equals “akeda“, the Torah portion read at Rosh Hashanah which relates the story of Abraham and Isaac. Thus, the apple is believed symbolize the divine presence. Honey refers to Biblical land of milk and honey. But honey also comes with a price; it comes often with a sting. We may have to risk being stung to achieve the sweetness of the year ahead.
Next comes the festive meal. Some foods are the same in Jewish communities worldwide, some are very different. It is customary to serve a fish’s head to the head of the household; “rosh” means both head and a beginning. It traditionally symbolized the role of the head of the household as a leader among people. Joan Nathan writes that the eating of a head, “will see the Jewish nation redeemed and at the head of the nations of the world, rather than at the tail as a small, downtrodden people.”
Fish symbolizes many things. “That we be fruitful and multiply like fish.” It represents the Great Leviathan on which Israel is to feast for eternity in Heaven, and the saying in the Shulhan Arukh “being at the head and not the tail.” And because fish never close their eyes, they represent that God is ever watching. There is a Hasidic custom not to eat fish on the second day of Rosh HaShanah because fish eat the sins thrown into the water during the Tashlikh ceremony.
Sephardic Jews also served a sheep’s head. They often served lamb for dinner recalling the test God gave Abraham who was told to sacrifice his son; an attribution since the early Middle Ages.
Other symbolic foods eaten at the Rosh Hashanah meal might include:
Round food (meatballs, green peas, chickpeas, ring shaped breads, and pastries are eaten to bring a round and full year. In Eastern Europe round soup nuts, mondlen (almonds) and farfel were eaten in chicken soup, representing wholeness and perfection in the New Year. The word farfellen signifies the hope for a falling away of our misdeeds of the past year.
In the Polish-Jewish tradition, pomegranates and peas are eaten at Rosh Hashanah, so that God will find one’s good deeds equal the number of the seeds of the pomegranate or peas in a bowl of soup.
In the Sephardic world, chickpeas were eaten at Rosh Hashanah. “Kara” is Hebrew for chickpeas and implies that they are cold (kar) on the inside. Chickpeas symbolize the cooling down of God’s stern judgement. North African Jews eat chickpeas in couscous. Eastern European Jews eat them sprinkled with salt and pepper. It was thought that the moonlight caused these beans to grow, and the moon is associated with the flow of water and hence with “merit and favor.”
Sweet foods are thought to welcome a sweet New Year and are eaten as directed in the Psalms: “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord.” (Nehemiah 8:10). Sweet foods include: tzimmes (stew usually of meat, carrots, sweet potatoes and dried fruits), rich honey cake, and Sephardic tispishti ( walnut cake with sweet syrup).
Carrots are rich in symbolism in Eastern Europe for their shape and color. The Yiddish word for carrots “merren” also means increase. Dishes with carrots symbolize the desire merits increase over shortcomings and the New Year be abundant. A round carrot sandwich with honey symbolizes gold coins and the value of the Torah.
Traditionally, New Year’s greetings and gifts were confections and sweets such as honey cookies and cakes. Honey cake, leykah (H., portion) “and the cake signifies the prayer ‘Give them a goodly portion’” was served from Rosh Hashanah through Simhat Torah and at weddings and at the birth of a boy. Teiglach is a gooey sweet made with honey in Eastern Europe. In the Middle East, sweet dates represent that the New Year be sweet. Quince or rose petals cooked in syrup were other specialties in this region. Indian Jews ate halwa made with coconut milk and wheat starch.
In place of honey cake, Jews of Greece used pumpkin or almonds made into turnovers as a symbol of abundance. Sweet foods eaten to bless the New Year by the Sephardim in Izmir included : “maztapan” (marzipans in special shapes), and “mustachidos” (marzipan with nuts in the shape of a moustache), “travados” (sweet beurekitos with walnuts, sugar and honey), and baklava.
Bitter or sharp foods were not eaten in some communities, especially Eastern European. Lebanese Jews did not eat salty or lemony foods. No vinegar, lemon, or tamarind was used in cooking. Onion and leeks are sharp when raw, yet sweet when cooked.
Numerical values were not only applied to apples. Eastern European Jews did not eat nuts. “The total numeral value of the letters of the Hebrew word for walnut, egoz, is 17, equivalent to the numerical value of the Hebrew word for sin, het” (Nathan p.80).
Lucky numbers and dark colors were other symbols found in foods eaten at Rosh Hashanah. The number 7 was considered good luck in North Africa. Moroccans made couscous aux sept legumes, their national dish. Among some Sephardic Jews, the color of food limited ingredient choices. Nothing black, a sign of mourning was eaten. Substitutions included: golden raisins for dark ones, green olives for black, green mint tea in North Africa. Moroccans do not eat eggplant; it is both dark in color and may have a bitter taste.
Next, I’ll share what I cook for this holiday and what others traditionally cook.
Joke for the New Year :
ROSH HASHANANA (noun) A rock ‘n roll band from Brooklyn*
*Note: Long ago my mom really thought the musical group Shanana was an Israeli combo!