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



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.


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 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.


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.



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.


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 soup is popular in Morocco during Jewish New Year



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