The Meaning Behind Traditional Jewish New Year Foods
Most people associate Jewish food holidays with Passover, simply because it’s a pain in the butt to avoid bread for a week. However, I would argue that Rosh Hashanah, which translates to "the head of the year", is just as much of a food-focused holiday. Sure, you'll find standard fare like matzo ball soup served in steaming bowls of Grandma's chicken broth and gefilte fish plated next to boiled vegetables, but there are also specific ingredients you'll only see at most dinner tables this time of year.
The celebration follows a lunar calendar and usually falls anywhere from mid-September to mid-October. Eating happens throughout the entire two-day holiday, but the main events are the dinners. The first feast kicks off the holiday the evening before the first full day, and the second is the following night. Extended families come together to welcome the new year with these two massive feasts that typically contain some crucial ingredients. Some families will simply incorporate these foods throughout the meal, while others take time to individually eat them and say a blessing.
These are some of the foods you can find at a traditional Rosh Hashanah dinner table and why they make an appearance during this festive time of year.
A common greeting during the holiday is to wish your family and friends a “happy and sweet New Year”. The word sweet is taken very literally, especially in terms of the foods served. You’ll usually find bowls of honey all over the table for guests to dip bread and apples into throughout the meal, and a blessing is said over the first bite wishing everyone a good and sweet year to come.
Most Jewish holiday meals start with the classic challah bread, an egg-based, braided bread that goes back to ancient Jewish history. During Rosh Hashanah, it’s customary to see the bread braided into a circle instead of the usual oval shape. This is said to represent the cyclic nature of the year, and serve as a reminder that we have completed a full cycle. On all other holidays where the challah bread is present, it's typically salted before serving. On these particular nights, the bread is drizzled with honey instead.
Apples have taken quite the spotlight on the Rosh Hashanah table. There’s no straight answer for their presence, but there are a few ideas of how the fruit became the image of the Jewish New Year. Apples are generally in peak season during the holiday, so they help kick off a celebration of the harvest. They’re also a super sweet, satisfying fruit that’s great to dip into honey. Plus, they have biblical significance. No matter what you believe, you’ll definitely find a plateful of these at the table.
Some say you need to try a completely new fruit to start the new year off with a bang, while others simply require you to eat a fruit that hasn’t been seen since the season began. Either way, you’ll often find platters of star fruits, dragon fruits, cherimoya, and unfamiliar melons passed around at the beginning of the meal.
This one has been a bit of a looser tradition over the years. It was once customary to eat the head of a ram or other animal that follows Jewish dietary laws to symbolize the head of the new year and starting off ahead of the rest. In more recent years, the dish has become a fish head and, for some, just a fish dish to abide by more modern day eating standards. Other theories say it’s always been a fish dish, signifying the Jewish people should be plentiful like fish.
An old wives' tale claims there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate to symbolize the 613 biblical good deeds or commandments Jewish people must fulfill. Other stories say the pomegranate represents a year full of good deeds like the fruit is full of seeds.
There’s actually quite a bit of humor brought to the Rosh Hashanah table. Typically Jewish people who come from Spain, Portugal, and Northern Africa (called Sephardic Jews) will follow these specific traditions. Foods like dates, black-eyed peas, haricots verts, Swiss chard, beets, leeks, and squash can be found at the table, depending on the family’s heritage. The names for these foods in Hebrew or Aramaic, an ancient unused language, sound similarly to other words that promote a happy new year. They’re basically food puns, but somehow managed their way on to tables of thousands of Jewish people across the world.
Have a happy and sweet New Year to all who celebrate!