By Rabbi Scott Shafrin
As a community, Jewish people have long been known for their love of food, especially during holidays. It turns out this is not a new phenomenon, but has been a part of our culture since the time of the Talmud. Looking for ways to increase the joy of Rosh Hashanah, the 3rd Century sage Abaye wrote, “Since you have made it clear that having symbols is important, at the beginning of the year each person should accustom themselves to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks and dates.” While most of us are not rushing to the grocery store to fill our pantries with fenugreek (a common medicinal plant in the ancient world), we do put a number of symbols with special meanings on our plates and tables for Rosh Hashanah.
The Circle of Food
Have you ever noticed that many of the foods we eat during Rosh Hashanah are round? Apples and honey, pomegranates, and especially a round loaf of challah are traditionally eaten on this holiday. This minhag, or Jewish custom, comes from the traditional concept that the world was created on Rosh Hashanah, an idea we commemorate each year at Rosh HaShanah services, following the blowing of the shofar, when we declare, Hayom harat olam, “Today is the day the world was born!” Because of this, we eat foods that look like the globe on which we live.
Another idea is that time flows in a cycle, connecting yesterday to tomorrow, and linking all of us to all the people in our past as well as those who have yet to be born. Like on Simchat Torah, when we read the last parashah in the Torah (V’zot Habrachah) and immediately go on to read the first one (Beresheet), the idea of a circle of time helps us to remember where we come from and look at what is ahead.
A Sweet Year
During the High Holidays, especially on Rosh Hashanah people often greet one another by saying Shanah Tova U’metukah, which means, “Have a happy and sweet year!” In order to start our new year on a sweet note, we include as many different deliciously sweet treats as possible into our holiday meal. Some of these foods include apples dipped in honey, adding raisins to challah, making sweet kugels, and eating a variety of fruits and desserts.
On many Jewish holidays, and to mark a special occasion, it is customary to say a blessing called Shehechiyanu, and Rosh Hashanah is no exception. But unlike most holidays, which are only two days long outside of Israel, Rosh Hashanah is always a two-day holiday even in the Land of Israel, and is referred to as yoma arikhta, “a single long day.” Because of this idea, many of our rabbis argued that we should not say Shehechiyanu on the second night, since it is no longer a new holiday.
In order to avoid that confusion, the rabbis instituted a minhag to eat a new food during the second day of Rosh Hashanah. By doing this, you say Shehechiyanu over both the new food and on the second night of Rosh Hashanah at the same time. I recommend heading to your local farmers market and trying some of the eclectic mix of fruits and vegetables that are now in season, such as Asian pears, pluots, dragonfruits, or lychees.
Since Rosh Hashanah means “The Head of the Year” in English, some communities have taken to celebrating the holiday literally by serving fish heads at their festive meals for this holiday. But if this does not seem comfortable to you, I recommend substituting the heads of your favorite kosher, fish-shaped snacks, like Swedish Fish® or Goldfish® Crackers.
Have a Shanah Tova U’Metukah – A happy and sweet new year!
Rabbi Scott Shafrin is currently the Rabbi In Residence at The Epstein School. He was Born in Milwaukee, WI and received his B.A. from Brandeis University.