Dateline Jerusalem — In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the birth of mankind, 5,778 years ago. G-d created man. The next day He rested.
This year is particularly significant in that Shabbat, the day of rest for Jews, immediately follows Rosh Hashana.
As with most Jewish holidays, after spending the evening before and the day of in prayer, we go home for sumptuous meals with symbolic foods.
Because Rosh Hashana is the only holiday Israel observes for two days, that means cooking, cooking and cooking.
Two days and two nights of Rosh Hashana and one day and night of Shabbat, add up to a lot of feasting.
How can anyone stay on a diet with so much food, especially sweet food, as we dip round challah and apples into honey and say a blessing for a sweet year to start off the holiday.
The challah is round instead of the usual braided loaves of bread because round symbolizes the continuity of Creation.
Family customs include challah with honey and raisins for a sweet year.
Apples are a Kabbalistic symbol of Paradise.
Although Israel is known as the Land of Milk and Honey, the honey referred to is the sweet dripping sap of dates drying on the vines of palm trees, not that of bees.
However, most people use bee honey to dip and cook with in their symbolic dishes. According to Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, Israelis consume 2,000 tons of honey during the month of Rosh Hashana. Honey bees must gather nectar from 5 to 8 million flowers to make just one jar of honey.
Some Israelis, depending on family tradition, cook with a date syrup called silan and add brown dried dates to their dishes, while others will eat the hard smooth yellow dates that grow in clusters directly from the vine. As the yellow dates dry, they become the wrinkled brown dates bought in most markets.
Dates are one of the seven species inherent to the land of Israel according to the Torah (Bible). The others six are figs, pomegranates, grapes, olives, wheat and barley. Israelis incorporate these seven species into their holiday meals, reciting special blessings over them.
Allegedly, every pomegranate contains 613 seeds, corresponding to the 613 mitzvot (commandments) required of Jews. I actually know several people who counted the seeds to verify that there are 613.
Tons of Fun
Some Israelis cook with pomegranate molasses and add seeds to salads, vegetables, fish and meat. Israelis consume 6,000 tons of pomegranates during Rosh Hashana, and 14,000 tons per year.
We make a blessing on the pomegranate to wish that our good deeds this year will be “as plentiful as the seeds of the pomegranate.”
“Plentiful” is a common theme during Rosh Hashana. There are blessings for more children, more wealth, more charity, more good deeds, more Torah knowledge. The Yiddish word for “more,” and for carrots, is merren. Many people include honey-baked carrot dishes with the carrots sliced into small rounds that look like coins. Then a blessing is said for prosperity.
One of the fun things to do at a Rosh Hashana feast is to make puns out of a food’s name and make a blessing over the food. The Hebrew word for gourd is similar to that of tear. So we eat pumpkin, zucchini or squash and wish that G-d will “tear away” all evil decrees against us.
Beets are eaten to wish that all enemies who might “beat” us will leave us alone — and “we will beat any obstacles that come our way.”
The word for leeks is similar to the word for “cut off.” So we wish our enemies will be cut off.
Another symbolic dish is made with raisin and celery together so that a blessing is said for a “raise in salary.”
Other English puns for food include “Raisin’ your hopes and expectations for the new year” with raisins, “Let us find happiness in the new year” for lettuce, and “hope for increased peace” for peas.
Because Rosh Hashana literally means “head of the year” in Hebrew, another tradition is to put the head of a fish on the table so that we will be “like the head and not the tail,” leaders not followers, in the coming year.
Some Jews in the U.S. started using “gummy” candies in the shape of fish instead of a fish head with eyes staring at you. That isn’t exactly appetizing.
Something Fishy Is Good
Fish are symbols of fertility and abundance. Since fish never sleep and they do not have eyelids, they are symbolic of an ever vigilant G-d.
Some communities use the head of a lamb or the pickled tongue of a cow instead of fish. The sheep’s head is symbolic of the binding of Isaac when a ram took the place of him on the altar.
On the second night of Rosh Hashana, we eat a new fruit, something we haven’t eaten during the year, to thank G-d for keeping us alive and bringing us to this season.
Israel has such an abundance of wonderful fruits all year round that finding a new fruit can be a task. But it is worth the effort.
Other culinary traditions, especially for Israeli Jews and Sephardic Jews include eating black-eyed peas or green beans. The Talmud says “…now that you have established that good-luck symbols avail, you should make it a habit to see gara (bottle gourd), rubiya (black-eyed peas), kartei (leeks), silka (beets or spinach) and tamrei (dates) on you table on the New Year.
During Rosh Hashana, there are foods that many people avoid. To have a sweet year and not a sour one, anything bitter, is avoided, like vinegar, pickles and mustard. Anything relating to sin is avoided. For example, the numeric value of Hebrew letters is gematria, a kind of numerology. The gematria for the Hebrew word for walnut is egoz. The gematria for that is close to that of the word chet or sin. Although egoz and chet actually have a different gematria, because they are close, many people have the custom of not eating any kind of nuts, not just walnuts, or food with nuts during the holiday. They want to avoid even the slightest hint of sin.
May G-d inscribe and seal you all in the Book of Life for a long life and a year of health, happiness, prosperity and safety. May you all have a good, sweet and favorable new year.