What do all Jewish holidays have in common? Are you thinking God, Torah, history, family, prayer? While all of these are good answers, my favorite answer is food.
Every Jewish holiday comes back to the food. Even fast days begin and end with special meals. There are specific foods for each holiday that trigger many memories. It is amazing the way taste and smell bring us back to childhood holiday experiences.
These special foods are connected to the holidays in some way. We especially think of Passover foods as having symbolic meanings during the Seder. But Rosh Hashanah also has symbolic foods. In fact, some Sephardic Jews have a special Rosh Hashanah Seder that includes consuming these items. These foods, called simanim (symbols), help us enunciate our prayers for the holiday in a culinary way. Here is a list of some Rosh Hashanah foods and their meanings.
- Apples and honey: We pray that the new year will be as sweet as apples and honey.
- Round challah: Symbolizing the never-ending cycle of the year.
- Fish (head): We eat fish because fish do not ever close their eyes; this reminds us that God is always watching over us. The fish head symbolizes that our year should be like the head, not the tail.
- Ram’s head: Sephardic Jews put a ram’s head on the table to remember the story of the binding of Isaac where eventually Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of his son. Also, like the fish, the year should be like the head.
- New fruit: On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, it is traditional to eat a new fruit that you have not eaten that season to enable us to say the shehecheyanu prayer on the second night.
- Honey cake: Honey cake reminds us of the sweetness of the holiday. There is a tradition on the morning before Rosh Hashanah to ask someone for honey cake (lechach in Yiddish). The idea is that if you have to beg sometime in the coming year, you should get it over with by asking for honey cake.
- Leeks: The Hebrew word for leeks (karti) sounds like the word for cut off (yikartu). We pray that our enemies be cut off.
- Spinach or chard: The Hebrew word for spinach (selek) sounds like the word retreat (yistalku). We pray that all our enemies will retreat before us.
- Dates: The Hebrew word for dates (tamar) is similarly to the word end (yitamu). We pray that God’s anger toward us will end and God will judge us favorably for the coming year.
- Carrots: The Hebrew word for carrot (gezer) sounds like the word decree (g’zar). We pray that any evil decrees against us will be nullified. Also, the Yiddish word for carrots (meren) sounds like more (mer). We pray for more blessings in the coming year.
- Pomegranate: Pomegranates have many seeds (some say 613, like the number of commandments). We pray that in the coming year our good deeds will be plentiful like the seeds of a pomegranate.
- Pumpkin or gourd: The Hebrew word for pumpkin (k’ra) sounds like the word tear (k’riah). We pray that God will tear away any evil decrees against us.
- String beans: The Hebrew word for string beans (rubia) sounds like the word increase (yirbu). We pray that God will increase our merits.
So this year, when our holidays will look and feel different because of COVID 19, perhaps adding these foods to our Rosh Hashanah celebration will add meaning and delicious food to help increase our joy! Wishing you a happy, sweet, and healthy new year.