Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a two-day holiday filled with rejuvenating foods, rituals, and prayers. During this time, Jews reflect on themselves, who they are, where they may have fallen short, and things they can do to honor their faith and return to a state of grace.
An important part of this includes the foods eaten during Rosh Hashanah, which are also called Simanim. While there are no requirements that dictate which foods must be eaten, many of the traditional dishes are symbolic and represent the desire for a sweet and fruitful new year.
Challah is a type of bread that traditionally is braided, signifying that – despite our many differences – we are all one. During Rosh Hashanah, challah is round, symbolizing continuity and the cyclical nature of the year. Before eating challah, diners tear off a small piece of bread as a sacrifice after reciting a special prayer that translates into:
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has brought forth bread from the earth.”
Apples are considered to be the perfect fruit – sweet and beautiful in both appearance and scent. In the Jewish faith, Kabbalists (those who follow a part of the Jewish Tradition that some consider to be mystical) consider the Garden of Eden to be “the holy apple orchard.”
During Rosh Hashanah, apples are intended to reinforce the intention to turn the world into a “garden of Eden.” Before they are eaten, the apples are dipped in honey and a prayer is recited to ask God for a sweet new year.
“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree,” is spoken before taking the first bite. The prayer then continues with: “May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year.”
Pomegranates are filled with seeds. Some speculate that they are filled with 613 seeds, which represent the 613 commandments of the Torah. While this number may or may not be accurate, pomegranates are eaten during Rosh Hashanah to symbolize good deeds and increased merits in the new year.
Before eating pomegranates, Jews will recite a blessing asking God to fill them with mitzvot: “May it be Your will, God and the God of our ancestors, that we be filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate is filled with seeds.”
Rosh Hashanah translates into “head of the year.” Eating fish head on Rosh Hashanah symbolizes the desire to be “heads, not tails” in the new year – in other words, to be leaders, not followers. Deuteronomy 28:13 states: “And the Lord will make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if thou shalt hearken unto the commandments of the Lord thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them.”
Fish also symbolize futility and abundance due to the way they swim together in large schools and multiply quickly.
In Yiddish, meren translates to both the noun “carrots” and the verb “to multiply.” During Rosh Hashanah, carrots are eaten in the hope that one’s merits will increase in the new year. Since the Hebrew word for carrot, gezer, sounds much like the word for decree, g’zar, some say that eating carrots also expresses the desire for God to tear up any negative decrees against them.
A common blessing recited before eating carrots is: “May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that our evil decree will be annulled and our merits will be recalled.”
Eaten on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, new fruits are those that have just been harvested and have not been eaten since last season. New fruit represents the celebration of creativity and also symbolizes gratefulness for being alive and experiencing all that the world has to offer.
Before eating the new fruit, a Shehecheyanu blessing is said: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.”
Since Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of a new year and blessings for a sweet year to come, it is customary in the Jewish tradition to avoid foods that are bitter, sour, or tart. Nuts are also avoided during this time; they make you salivate, making prayer difficult.
Rosh Hashanah is a sacred time with prayers and rituals practiced throughout the world in Jewish homes. At tables basked in the light of glowing candles, Jewish families and friends reflect on their lives of the past year, give thanks, and pray for blessings in the year to come.