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While Rosh Hashanah is a time for reflection and repentance, it is also a festival of great joy. We celebrate the arrival of the new year by eating a variety of foods that symbolize sweetness, goodness and abundance. Appropriate blessings are made over many of these symbolic foods at the beginning of the two evening holiday meals, a tradition which is called the Seder of Rosh Hashanah. Each prayer relates either to the taste, name or shape of the food.
The Rosh Hashanah challah is usually round in shape, representing the cyclical nature of life and the good year that we hope is to come. On Rosh Hashanah we dip the challah into honey rather than salt when we say the blessing over bread, to welcome the new year with something sweet. The challah can have raisins inside it to increase the sweet taste. Many people continue the Rosh Hashanah tradition of dipping challah into honey rather than salt when they say the blessing over bread until the end of Sukkot.
Honey represents sweetness, and we try to integrate this sweetness into the entire Rosh Hashanah meal. Honey can be added to a variety of chicken dishes and meat casseroles, and honey cake is traditional fare in most households.
Apple and honey
Perhaps the most well-known symbolic Rosh Hashanah food is the apple dipped in honey. On both nights of the festival, after making the blessing over the challah, we dip the apple in honey and recite the blessing over fruit, followed by a special prayer asking that we may be renewed for a good and sweet year. There are several explanations traditionally offered as to why we eat apples with the honey. One is that Isaac blessed Jacob with the words: "The fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field which Hashem has blessed…" (Bereshit 27:27). The Talmud identifies this field as an apple orchard. (Ta'anis 29b, Biyur Hagra.) It is therefore appropriate to eat an apple, a fruit whose smell is associated with Jacob’s blessing, on the day that we ourselves want blessings.
Carrots - tzimmes
Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the 10-day judgment period that ends with Yom Kippur. Each person is judged individually according to his or her acts of righteousness. The Hebrew word for “decree” - gezerah - has the same root as the word “carrot” – gezer. We hope that by eating carrots we will experience sweet things in the year ahead, and any harsh decrees will be lessened. Another explanation is based on the Yiddish word for carrots – meren, which also means to increase. Thus carrots symbolize our hope that we will increase our good deeds in the year ahead. Some tzimmes recipes include prunes, sweet potatoes and meat, and honey can be added to sweeten the dish even more.
Fish is another traditional part of the Rosh Hashanah meal. It is a symbol of fertility, and we ask that we may “be fruitful like fish in the sea”. It also represents knowledge since its eyes are always open. The head of the fish (or the head of a sheep) is compared to the head of the new year and it is placed before the head of the family, who prays, "May it be your will that we be like the head (leaders) and not like the tail (followers)."
These are eaten because they are said to have at least 613 seeds – the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah - and we ask that our merits increase as the seeds of a pomegranate.
The pomegranate often serves as the new fruit - a fruit not yet eaten this season – for the special Shehechiyanu blessing recited on the second evening of Rosh Hashanah that thanks God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this season. If you eat pomegranates regularly, then find another new fruit that you haven’t eaten this season or even the whole year. The idea is to ensure that the second day of Rosh Hashanah has a new element to it and isn’t simply a repeat of the first day.
The Hebrew word for leek is kreishah. It resembles the Hebrew word khareit, which means to cut down or decimate. Therefore the prayer is that our enemies - including our misdeeds (our spiritual enemies) - be decimated.
The Hebrew word for beet is selek. It sounds like sileik, which means remove. The prayer is that our enemies be removed.
Tamar is the Hebrew word for date. It resembles tom, which means consume. We ask that our enemies be consumed.
Pumpkin, squash and gourd
These foods are called kara in Aramaic. This relates to the Hebrew word for “tear” and “proclaim”. We ask God to tear up any negative decree and to proclaim our merits.
Black-eyed peas or green beans
These are mentioned in the Talmud as ruviah, a word that sounds like the Hebrew “to increase”, and therefore indicates a desire for increased blessings in the new year. We ask that our many positive actions during the year be taken into account during the days of judgment.
Wishing you Shanah Tovah U’Metukah – a good and sweet year.
Sweet and Sour Tongue
Submitted by Judy Shapiro
I figured that I could start my own symbolic Rosh Hashanah foods, so several years ago I decided to include sweet and sour tongue on the menu since many of our prayers—especially on Yom Kippur - are meant to repent for our inclination to utter falsehoods and to gossip. It is said that 'life and death are at the mercy of the tongue', and I take that seriously, especially when it comes to the media.
This recipe comes from the American Jewish Cookbook which my mother gave me when I married.
1 cooked tongue*
1 large onion, chopped
1 tablespoon cooking fat
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups hot tongue liquid
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon almonds, finely chopped
1 stick cinnamon
¼ cup raisins
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon molasses
Juice of a lemon
Cook and then slice the cooked tongue. Brown the onion slightly in hot fat. Remove the onion and put it aside. Stir flour into the hot fat and cook 3 minutes. Gradually add hot tongue liquid with salt and simmer gently until smooth and thickened - about 5 minutes. Add browned onions, almonds, cinnamon, cloves and raisins. Mix well. Blend together the brown sugar, molasses and lemon juice and stir into the mixture. Simmer for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. If desired, add more salt, sugar and lemon juice to taste. Add sliced tongue and simmer until heated through. Serve with sauce.
*How to cook the tongue: The washed and scrubbed beef tongue is boiled with 6 peppercorns, 4 whole cloves and 1 tbsp. of vinegar in a deep kettle with boiling water to cover. Boil for 10 minutes, and then simmer for 3-5 hours, or until a fork will penetrate readily to the center. Let tongue remain in the water until cool enough to handle. Peel off outer skin. Cut out membranous remains of roots. Press into shape for serving. 1 two-kilo tongue serves 12. (I have found the tongue easier to slice when it is cold. A slicing machine yields thinner, more even, and a greater number of slices.)
Apple and Honey Cake with Pomegranate Glaze
Submitted by Barbara Abraham
This has to be the perfect cake for Rosh Hashanah.
Approx. 12 servings
2½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg or ground cloves
1½ cups dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup date honey (substitute regular honey if date honey is unavailable)
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
1½ cups applesauce – boil peeled and cored green apples with a few cloves and a dessert spoon of honey in the water and pass through sieve when soft.
Preheat the oven to 165º. In a small mixing bowl sift together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg or cloves. In a separate large mixing bowl stir together the brown sugar, vanilla extract and vegetable oil until thoroughly combined. Stir in the date honey, then whisk in the eggs one at a time. Add the apple sauce and stir until fully mixed in. Stir in flour mixture, mixing well.
Spoon the batter into a greased 10-inch Bundt or tube pan. Transfer to the preheated oven and bake 40 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool slightly and then invert onto a plate or board. Let it cool while you make the pomegranate glaze.
Pomegranate Glaze Ingredients
½ cup pomegranate juice
¼ cup sugar
Juice of ½ lemon
¾ cup pomegranate seeds
Pomegranate Glaze Method
Combine the pomegranate juice, sugar and lemon juice in a small pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer, uncovered and stirring frequently, until syrupy and reduced by about half (about 15 minutes). Remove from the heat and stir in the pomegranate seeds. Spoon the glaze over the cake and serve.