This year, the two-day holiday of Rosh Hashanah begins the evening of September 4, kicking off the Jewish High Holiday season. Often called The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah is considered the spiritual head of the year and is a time of both great joy and introspection. It is sister holidays with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which follows ten days later.
For those of us who tend to view the world through food-focused lenses, here is a guide to Rosh Hashanah’s main (and many) food symbols.
Many Jews fast on Yom Kippur as a symbolic way of elevating themselves beyond the physical world so they can focus on the spiritual. But while Rosh Hashanah is also spiritually focused (synagogue attendance typically goes through the roof for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), it has the added bonus of being an excellent food holiday filled with festive meals and rich food symbolism.
Apples and Honey
It is customary to wish people a sweet New Year on Rosh Hashanah. At the dinner table, these friendly wishes translate into a very sweet custom: dipping apple slices into golden honey. It is also customary to eat foods that feature one or both of these sugary foods, including apple cake, honey cake, tzimmes, a root vegetable and dried fruit stew often sweetened with honey, and teiglach, a sticky, Old World confection made from bits of dough boiled in honey. (Kind of like a Jewish popcorn ball.)
As the Jewish calendar’s New Year’s equivalent, Rosh Hashanah is a great time to hope for a full, round year ahead. That is why one tends to see round or spiral-shaped challahs instead of the typical braided loaves on the Rosh Hashanah dinner table. As an added bonus, challah often comes studded with raisins for an extra dose of sweetness.
Pomegranates, the gorgeous, globe shaped fruits packed with overlapping layers of ruby-colored seeds, are commonly incorporated into Rosh Hashanah menus. In addition to being one of the fruits mentioned in the Old Testament, the pomegranate’s many seeds are said to represent both the 613 commandments the Jewish people received from God, and our wishes to do many good deeds in the coming year. Not coincidentally, pomegranates also tend to come into season right around Rosh Hashanah – apples too!
On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, some Jews have the custom of eating a “new fruit,” meaning a fruit that one has not eaten in the last year, or that has recently come into season. This tasty custom offers a way to physically taste the newness of the year, and is accompanied by a blessing of thanks for reaching the New Year. Pomegranates are often used for this purpose, as are star fruits, ugli fruits, lychees, and other less common fruits.
Rosh Hashanah Seder
Seders are typically associated with Passover, but some communities (particularly Sephardic Jews who originally hailed from Spain) hold a Rosh Hashanah seder as well. These fun and informal seders focus on eating a variety of foods including leeks, pumpkin, beets, and dates that have a layer of symbolism often based on a pun on the food’s Hebrew name.
What are your Rosh Hashanah food traditions?