Symbolic Foods of Rosh Hashanah

by Sarah on September 18, 2011

pomegranate, 613 seeds

Pomegranate in September

Another summer has passed. The kids are back at school and parents can finally relax. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Welcome to Israel, where “The Holidays” arrive within a month of the new school year, rolling in with alarming speed just when things are getting back to normal. After two months of getting on each other’s nerves it seems way too soon to be ushering in the New Year. I don’t feel light hearted and festive but like a substitute teacher in a rowdy homeroom.  The burden of preparing for the holidays starts again; Last minute renovations, cleaning, cooking, buying new clothes….the list doesn’t end. Surprisingly, in this country of weekly strikes and demonstrations nobody seems bothered by this. I would like to stand in a corner with a sign “Why can’t we have the holidays in November this year?” Sacrilegious perhaps.

But once I have gathered together with friends and family in celebration everything seems to come together. There’s no place I would rather be.

An important part of preparing for the holidays is obtaining the good omens, foods with symbolic significance. During the high holidays and Jewish New Year, these foods have become a traditional part of the festive meal and an indirect way of asking for health, happiness and success. While some foods, such as apples and honey are compulsory in every household, others are not as well known.

hallah bread for rosh hashanah

Hallah

 

The braided Hallah bread is one of the most recognized symbols of the Sabbath and religious holidays. On Rosh Hashanah it undergoes a transformation. Instead of its usual rectangular shape, it is rolled into a circle to represent continuity. These loaves are often sweeter than usual, with added raisons or honey.

apples at Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem

In the weeks prior to Rosh Hashannah, kindergarteners are immersed in holiday activities and often come home pleading for apples and honey. Apple farmers are doing great business, while apiarists agree that this is a sweet way to start the year. Unlike Thanksgiving, apples are not usually cooked into pies or cakes but cut up into wedges and drizzled with a copious amount of honey.

Honey cake is by far the most popular way of incorporating this golden liquid into the meal. Like Christmas pudding, not everyone loves honey cake but they all agree that it wouldn’t be a proper holiday without it. Each family has their own secret recipe (except me apparently, so if you have one to recommend, I appreciate it) which is handed down from generation to generation.

pomegranate

Half a pomegranate

According to biblical folklore, pomegranates have exactly 613 seeds. This represents the number of mitzvoth, or good deeds, a pious person strives to attain. Those who have tried to dispute this number are usually ignored, even by the secular. After all, nobody appreciates a nitpicker.  These crimson beauties still grow wild in many parts of Israel and begin ripening in early fall. A prayer of gratitude is said over these new fruit for the privilege of witnessing this yearly cycle.

fish at shuk hatikva, israel

Fish at Shuk Hatikvah Market, Tel Aviv

Squeamish modern families, who have a hard time acknowledging where their food comes from, don’t like the fish head addition to their dinner table. Others think this is sissy behavior and would never break this age-old tradition. We have come to a happy compromise and draw our tailless fish on A4 paper, hoping this is enough to get the message across. The point of all this is that everyone will come out ahead this year and perhaps even take drawing lessons. In the past other species of the animal kingdom, including lambs and chickens, were used as well.

Fish, symbolizing fertility and plentitude, has always been an integral part of the New Year meal. The Ashkenazi, or Jews from Eastern Europe prefer sweet gefilte fish cooked to gelatinous perfection. The Middle Eastern Jews like their fish fiery hot and topped with fresh coriander. Deciding which fish to serve in a mixed family setting is often the cause of most holiday grievances and can lead to long lasting culinary feuds.

Leeks

Leeks at the Organic Market in Tel Aviv (Hatahana)

With a bit of literary creativity, the common leek achieves unexpected fame.  In Aramaic karsi means leek, very similar to the Hebrew, karet or “to cut down”.  Leeks are eaten with the idea that your enemies will be “cut down” so you can enjoy the meal in peace.  Never did a vegetable gain so much attention from such a tenuous link between two ancient languages.

dates

Fresh dates at Ramle Market in September

Mentioned in the Talmud, dates have been an integral part of the Jewish culinary custom from antiquity. In Israel, dates ripen in early fall, a reminder of the yearly agricultural cycle. They look nothing like the shriveled lobes found in health food stores, nor are they so intensely sweet. Fresh dates are beautiful clusters of yellow and brighten up the Rosh Hashanah feast.

gourds

Gourds

There are a prodigious number of gourds on the market now. With a bit of world play, it too found itself invited to the celebration. What’s the connection? Gourd in Hebew is kara which is similar to the words to “tear up” and “to call out or proclaim”.  So serve yourself a hefty portion of gourd and ask G-d to please tear up the decree of your sentence while proclaiming only the virtues. Liz, of Café Liz has a great gourd recipe from Nazareth.

fenugreek

Fresh fenugreek

The Talmud recommends eating fenugreek for Rosh Hashanah although many either omit it or replace it with black eyed peas. Known as rubia in Aramiac, it resembles the Hebrew word, rab, to increase. A short prayer is often recited while eating fenugreek, “May it be your will Eternal G-d that our merits increase”.

black eyed peas

fresh black eyed peas at the market

With so many puns and literary allusions it not surprising that some confusion may have occurred at the market place.  Perhaps a woman asked her daughter to fetch rubia. Instead the girl came home with arms laden with lubia or fresh black eyed peas. According to Gil Marks this scenario may not be so far-fetched. Since then black eyed peas have joined the elite few to grace the holiday table.

Once again, multilanguage allusions connect Swiss chard to the New Year. The Arabic word for the vegetable is silleq close enough to the Hebrew word “to remove” or “cast away”. Swiss chard is eaten in the hope that our enemies (or perhaps bad deeds, mortgage and that parking ticket from Tel Aviv) will be cast away so we can go on vacation in peace.

Other common holiday foods include honey with sesame seeds (Tunisia), broad beans dipped in cumin and salt (Tunisia), fried dough called Speenj (Libya), pumpkin and chickpea soup (Morocco) and of course lots of wine.

pumpkin

Pumpkin soup is popular in Morocco during Jewish New Year

 

 

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Jennifer Chen September 18, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Great article with lots of great photos as well as precious unknown information (for me as an oriental). Love the article and thank you for sharing.

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Sarah September 19, 2011 at 2:00 am

thanks Jennifer!

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Yael September 19, 2011 at 2:37 am

Love that pomegranate black and white photo, it’s brilliant. Anyway, great post, very informative, and again the photos are great.

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Emily Segal September 19, 2011 at 3:58 am

Great piece Sarah! Where did you see those ring-shaped challot? Those are very special looking.

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Sarah September 19, 2011 at 10:44 am

Emily, I do believe I photographed the hala bread (challa) at Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem but don’t remember exactly where. The locals will probably recognize the exact store where it was baked. Thanks!

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foodwanderings September 19, 2011 at 6:25 am

Gasped when I saw the fresh dates. My fave and cannot find them anywhere. Also never heard of the leek eating tradition and the reason behind it. interesting. The challahs in your photos look incredible and nice recap of symblic foods for Rosh HaShana Sarah. חג שמח

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Sarah September 19, 2011 at 10:42 am

Thanks Shulie, It was fun doing the research for this article, hopefully this year I wont forget anything. Hag Sameach!

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Carolyn September 19, 2011 at 7:22 am

Interesting article, Sarah. Lots of things I didn’t know. What do you do with fresh dates? Can you eat them raw or do they need to be cooked?

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Sarah September 19, 2011 at 10:42 am

Carolyn, Thank you. The bright yellow dates remind me of unripe plums, pretty but so unpalatable. It’s better to let them mature to release their sweetness. My MIL has a nifty trick to speed the process and it works wonderfully. She puts them in the freezer for a day to reduce their astringency (they do get darker though) .
I have seen recipes which bake fresh dates, usually stuffed with cheese or other filling. I haven’t tried it in this way yet so not sure about the taste.

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zahavah September 19, 2011 at 1:52 pm

This is one of my favorite posts – I don’t think I’ve ever seen the simanim so well explained and photographed. I’ve never seen fresh dates or black eyed peas. How great to be in Israel at this time of year! My family has never made honey cake, and, honestly I don’t miss it.

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Lisa September 19, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Beautiful post, your posts transport me – thanks :)

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Mrs. S. September 20, 2011 at 6:30 am

Gorgeous pictures of the simanim! Thanks for sharing them!
There are also carrots – as in the traditional Ashkenazi tzimmes – whose Hebrew name (gezer) is similar to the word for decree/sentence (g’zar din). In other words, we hope and pray that we will be judged favorably. (Also, the Yiddish word for carrots is mehren, which also means “to increase.”)

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Sarah September 20, 2011 at 7:24 am

Mrs. S, You are absolutely right about the carrots, don’t know how I missed them. Thanks for the reminder.

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Liz September 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm

Sarah, I love the photos. I’m getting excited for the round challahs.

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Hana I. September 20, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Such a beautifully written and photo illustrated post, in addition to an inspiration to get into the holiday spirit. I can’t wait to share it with all of my foodie friends on facebook.

Shana tova u’metuka.

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Sarah September 20, 2011 at 11:35 pm

thanks so much Hana!

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Katherine Martinelli September 21, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Great post Sarah! A beautiful description of Rosh Hashanah foods and gorgeous photos as always. I’ve also been wondering what to do with fresh dates (your answer above is helpful, thanks!). They always look so beautiful but just don’t taste good fresh as you mentioned.

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Sarah September 22, 2011 at 2:13 am

Thanks Katherine, I also like to use the dates to decorate the succah, along with pomegranates.

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Jayne G September 22, 2011 at 1:53 am

What a fantastic Post Sarah. Highly educational; I did not know about many of the items you are writing here. I love pomegranate; I did not know that they grow freely in Israel? I guess if nothing else, this is a good reason visit. I pay $3.00 to $4.00 for one! Keep up the good work.

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Sarah September 22, 2011 at 2:12 am

thank you Jayne! Pomegranates do grow in the wild here, some of them the remains of groves which were once cultivated. The pomegranate season is wonderful and I always make sure to buy pomegranate juice at the souk while it lasts.

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Sally - My Custard Pie September 25, 2011 at 11:40 am

I’ve never been so happy to see pomegranate season as this year. They seem to be exceptionally sweet and beautiful. Your halved fruit it gorgeous.

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Deborah September 29, 2011 at 6:23 am

Wow..precious information here~ We’ve been in Beer Sheva now for about 5months and will be here for a few more. [husband work related] The food is delicious I’m finding..particularly the bread. The foccia bread in the Spagettim here in Beer Sheva is some of the best I’ve ever tasted. I’ll search your site for bread recipes..
Superb blog..I became an immediate Fan. :-) Thanks!

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Maya August 30, 2013 at 8:09 am

Great post and gorgeous pictures! This is THE best honey cake recipe… it makes me look forward to RH all year: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Majestic-and-Moist-New-Years-Honey-Cake-350153 Coffee and orange juice and whiskey (yet somehow also the strongest honey flavor of any honey cake I’ve tried)– how could it be bad? (Well, it can be if you only have a working broiler, but not a working oven… that’s a separate issue, though! Arrrgh)

-Maya (who canceled on you for a playdate Thurs, hopes for a rain check soon! :)

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