by Oded Schwartz
Like Pesach, Rosh Hashanah food has a deeply symbolic meaning, while the food of Pesach was prescribed in the bible and is based on our pastoral past - Rosh Hashanah's food is deeply steeped in Jewish folklore, magic and superstition.
The first time the Holiday is mentioned in the Bible is in Leviticus (23: 23-26). The text does not give the name of the holiday but says that it is a Shabaton - a rest day and celebrated, as many other holidays by blowing the shofar and making a sacrifice. The holiday was celebrated on the first of Tishri, the seventh month of the ancient Jewish calendar and was the first of three religious ceremonies that are celebrated this month: Sukkot, the end of the harvest celebration and the Fast of Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The New Year was celebrated on Pesach.
After the exile to Babylon and the urbanization of the majority of the population, Pesach (spring), lost its importance as the beginning of the agricultural year. The fixing of the Jewish calendar by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem also meant that the beginning of the year was set on the first of Tishri.
Rosh Hashanah is a curious holiday; it does not have the joyful feeling of Sukkot, Pesach or Shavout. It is celebrated after the month of Elul on the New Moon of the month of Tishri. Both months are associated with awe and contemplation. According to myth, Morel - the Angel of Awe rules Elul while Pahadran - the Angel of Terror rules the month of Tishri.
According to popular lore, these two months are a pivoting point in the calendar, when individual destiny is decided. During this period, God sits in justice and enters the population into three books. The righteous go directly to the Book of Life, the wicked to the Book of Death and the undecided. It is believed that those, which are the majority of the population, are able to influence the decision by repenting during this period. This is a conceptual belief, which was learned from the Babylonians. The two months were conceived as a precarious time of the year, a time where evil spirits are powerful and roam the earth looking for justice. It was the time to perform ancient, magical, Pagan ceremonies which involve visiting ancestors' graves, libation of water, symbolic transference of sins: Tashlich - a ceremony preformed by casting breadcrumbs into running water to pacify evil demons who live there; and Kaparot - a relic of the 'Scape Goat' ceremony that is preformed the day before Yom Kippur. Those ancient ceremonies are still practiced by the Orthodox community.
The Holiday's food reflects this pensive, contemplative and hopeful mood not only by using symbolic ingredients throughout the meal but also by avoiding others. Sweetness - which symbolizes hope for good things to come, is presented throughout Rosh Hashanah's food. The main meal, which is eaten on R/H eve, always starts with either apple or a piece of challa dipped in honey. Any bitter or sour flavours are avoided. Some communities do not serve almonds - as they are associated with bitterness and their shape resembles tears. Nut are avoided because the numerical value of the Hebrew word for nut - egoz is the same as the word for Sin - chet. Algerian Jews will not eat fish on R/H, as the Hebrew word for fish "Dag" resembles the word for worry - De'aga.
Shapes of dishes are also significant: the tradition is to use, as much as possible round shapes which represent wholeness and continuity. The Challahs baked on R/H are round and sweeter, more golden and richer than on the Sabbath. Sometimes the Challah is decorated with ladders, plaited crowns and birds in full flight. These represent the wish that the prayers will climb, fly directly to heaven. The birds are also a reference to a verse in Isaiah (31:5) " As birds flying, so will the Lord defend Jerusalem". The roundness is also present in the apple, dipped in honey, which is served as an opening to the meal, and in the round Kreplach (ravioli like turnovers made from noodle dough) that are served with the soup. The dough covering of the Kreplach represents the covered or veiled way which God works his Justice.
Celebrated soon before the harvest festival, fruit and vegetables play an important part and a special blessing is over new fruit is recited, preferably fruits which are mentioned in the Bible. Traditional fruits served include fresh dates, figs, carobs and pomegranates. The pomegranate has a special significance. Some say that its many seeds represent the 613 good deeds (Mitzvot) that a Jew has to perform during the year. Some say that its seeds number 365 and represent the days of the year.
Fruit and sweet root vegetables also feature in main dishes. One of the crowning glories of the Ashkenazi Rosh Hashanah table is the tzimes - a slow cooked vegetable and fruit stew that can be either vegetarian or include meat, usually brisket. Traditionally R/H tzimes is vegetarian and is made with carrots because when sliced, their round shape resembles gold coins (for riches) and their Yiddish name Mahren sounds like the word mher (more, multiply). Sweetness is also present in the many honey cakes, cookies and confections that are served on R/H.
There is also symbolic value in some of the main courses. Fish and meat especially fowl are served whole representing hope for the wholeness of the coming year. Dishes are made from of fish heads or a roasted lamb's head are served to the head family who then shares it with the others. If a head is not available - a whole roasted onion or garlic bulb is served and shared. This tradition signifies the wish to be at the 'head and not the tail' of the nations. Fish being a symbol of fertility features strongly at the R/H table. They also symbolize purity because of their association with running water.
As well as being symbolic, the Rosh Hashanah meal presents a delicious opportunity to celebrate in hope, hope for peace and better time as the Prophet Nehemiah (8:10) said, "eat (cholesterol free) fat and drink (sugar free) sweet" and have a Peaceful, Healthy and Productive New Year.
About the Author
Oded's first book 'In Search Of Plenty - a history of Jewish food' (1992)was short-listed for the British Andre' Simon award and won a special mention in the international "LengheCeretto
Prize" for food and wine culture. He now lives in Cape Town and contributes occasionally to Al'Hashulchan (a leading Israeli food & dining magazine). He is still researching and writing about the
history and culture of Israeli & Jewish food.