Citizens, there are no recipes here (for a change), but instead I offer you a very erudite explanation of the various food customs surrounding the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah (which is coming up on October 2, 2016) that I found fascinating.
Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew: רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה, literally “head [of] the year”) is the Jewish New Year. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (Hebrew: יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), literally “day [of] shouting/blasting”, sometimes translated as the Feast of Trumpets. It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days (Hebrew: יָמִים נוֹרָאִים Yamim Nora’im, lit. “Days [of] Awe”) specified by Leviticus 23:23–32, which usually occur in the early autumn of the Northern Hemisphere.
Rosh Hashanah is a two-day celebration, which begins on the first day of Tishrei. Tishrei is the first month of the Jewish civil year, but the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year.
According to Judaism, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the year is explained by it being the traditional anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman according to the Hebrew Bible, and their first actions toward the believed realization of humanity’s role in God’s world. According to one secular opinion its origin is in the beginning of the economic year in the ancient Near East, marking the start of the agricultural cycle.
Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn), as prescribed in the Torah, following the prescription of the Hebrew Bible to “raise a noise” on Yom Teruah; and among its rabbinical customs, is the eating of symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey to evoke a “sweet new year”.
These are outlined below. 🙂
Battle on – The Generalissimo
From Hagshama, the World Zionist Website:
Though Rosh Hashanah is one of Judaism’s more solemn holidays, a large part of its celebration takes place around the table (as in other Jewish holidays). Aside from the standard holiday Kiddush (blessing over wine), there are numerous symbolic activities that take place (usually) the first night of Rosh Hashanah at the dinner-table:
Normally, the two loaves of challah (bread) over which the Hamotzi (blessing) is said at a festive Shabbat or holiday meal are loaf- shaped or braided. For Rosh Hashanah, the traditional shape of the challah is round. This shape symbolizes the cycle of life and how we should be aware of it on this day. In some communities, the challah is shaped like a ladder, symbolizing the fortunes of people for the year ahead – some ascend and some descend life’s ladder.
On the Sabbath and other holidays, after the blessing and before partaking of the challah, it is dipped into salt. On Rosh Hashanah, it is dipped in honey (if none is available, then into sugar) and then eaten. This custom symbolizes our hope that the upcoming year will be sweet. Many also have a custom to make sure that there are raisins in their challah. As far as I know, the raisins are there to enhance the sweetness of the challah. If you know of any other reasons for raisins, I’ll be glad to hear them!
Apple Dipped in Honey
After dipping a sweet apple into honey, the blessing over fruit is recited plus the additional prayer, “May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year.”
The symbolism of the honey here is also connected to a sweet year. The symbolism of the apple is a bit more complex: The numerical value of “tapuach” (Hebrew word for apple) is numerically equivalent to “seh akeida” which means “the lamb of the binding.”
In the story in which our forefather, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at God’s command, Isaac asked his father, “We have all the necessary utensils for a sacrifice. But where is the sacrificial lamb?” Based on Abraham’s answer, Isaac understood that HE was to be that lamb about to be bound on the altar; he would be the “seh akeida.”
This whole incident of the binding of Isaac took place on Rosh Hashanah. (Notice, I say binding and not sacrificing, because in the end of the story, Isaac is not sacrificed.
At God’s bidding, he was removed from the altar and a ram was sacrificed in his place. This was only a test.) By eating the apple, we are symbolically expressing our hope that some of the merit generated through Abraham’s and Isaac’s testing will trickle down to our generation and help us be granted a sweet new year.
One takes a piece of this fruit (watch out – pomegranate juice stains in the worst way!) and says, “May it be Your will that our merits be numerous as (the seeds of) the pomegranate.”
What’s the deal? There are 613 commandments in the Torah for a Jew to fulfill. An individual pomegranate supposedly has 613 seeds. (Try counting them…. I did once, and though we lost exact count, there were more than 600 and less and 625 seeds – so it was awfully close!) By eating the pomegranate, we figuratively show our desire and hope to fulfill all 613 commandments, and by doing so, we will be able to accrue a nice amount of merit.
Beets are called “Salka” in Aramaic, and in Hebrew, that word is related to removal. We recite, “May our enemies be removed.” Notice we don’t say destroy – we just want them to go away, elsewhere, bye-bye.
This vegetable, called “Karti” in Aramaic, is related to the Hebrew word “to cut.” We recite, “May our misdeeds, our spiritual enemies, be cut down.”
Type of Green Bean
This vegetable is called “Rubiyah,” from the Hebrew word “to increase.” We recite, “May our merits increase.”
Type of Squash
Called “Kera,” this squash is phonetically related to the Hebrew word for “read” or “tear.” We recite one or both of the following: “May You tear up our negative judgement,” or “May You read our good merits before You.”
Dates are called “Tamri” in Aramaic which is related to the Hebrew word for consume. We ask here that those who want to destroy us be consumed.
Head of Sheep or Fish – (Vegetarians – skip this one!)
We partake of this and say, “May it be Your will that we should be at the head and not at the tail.” Aside from this, some people specifically eat from a sheep’s head saying that blessing, but precede it by eating fish (not necessarily the head) and say the blessing, “May it be Your will that our merits be fruitful and multiply as do the fish.”
Are you full, yet?
As a general rule, at this meal, foods that are sweet are eaten and we try to avoid eating anything sour, bitter, or overly spicy. Furthermore, there is one final food-item that is customarily NOT eaten on Rosh Hashanah, and that is any type of nut.
There are two reasons. First, pragmatically speaking, tradition tells us that nuts cause an extra production of phlegm in the nasal-throat area, and such phlegm can hinder someone’s ability to recite prayers (the main focus of the Holiday). The other reason is that the numerical value of nut in Hebrew, (“egoz”), is equal to the numerical value of the word “chet” which means sin. On Rosh Hashanah, we try to distance ourselves from anything remotely related to sin, so we avoid nuts.
This dinner meal sounds rather long, huh? The custom in a large number of communities is to eat these symbolic foods only the first night of Rosh Hashanah, though in some Sephardic communities, it is done both nights.
One more thing: On the second night specifically, most families have a custom to eat a “new” fruit and say the blessing called “Shehecheyanu” (“thanks, G-d, for allowing us to be here and doing what we are doing on this day”).
When I say a “new” fruit, I mean a fruit that has recently come back into season and you have not had it yet, or a fruit you have not eaten for at least 30 days (some say even for a year – this depends on the individual’s custom).
The point is to make sure that the second day of Rosh Hashanah (which seems redundant because it IS the second day) has something new about it. In addition or in place of the fruit, some people will make sure they are wearing new clothing to give that same element of novelty to the second day.
Some families eat only some of the aforementioned foods. Some families eat them all. One member of a Yemenite family confided in me, “By the time we are through with all of these, I am too stuffed to even think about the main course!”
Though the whole thing may seem silly to some, partaking of these symbolic foods and reciting the appropriate prayers add a profound level of reverence and meaning to the festive meal on this important day.