With Rosh Hashanah fast approaching, JLife digs down into the festival’s culinary roots to help you savour the hidden meanings behind your favourite festive foods for a sweet new year.
As the sun sets on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, two days of glorious feasting begins, giving families a wonderful opportunity to come together around the dinner table to reflect on the year past and share hopes for times ahead. The Jewish culinary tradition has always been about feel-good food that nourishes the body and the soul, so what better way to begin the New Year than on a full stomach?
On ‘the day of blasting’ we might be more preoccupied with cream horns than tooting on a ram’s. Yet the symbolic foods we adorn our tables with over the holidays can be a reminder of the strength we can draw from our rich cultural heritage as we step into an unknown future. Often steeped in obscurity, the significance behind the sweet seasonal treats we serve each year often goes overlooked. Full of fascinating history, mysticism and wordplay, a typical Rosh Hashanah spread says more than you might think.
Down to some clever puns, many traditional foods come dripping with their own linguistic connotations. Leek, a popular festival side dish, in Hebrew is translated as ‘karsi’ which shares similar pronunciation to ‘karas’ meaning collapse. This is an omen for those who wish evil upon you and hopefully not your honey cake. The Yiddish for carrot is ‘mehren’ which is the same word for increase, so many will slice their carrots into coins to signify hope for future prosperity. See the smiles on your kids’ faces when you give them their pocket money in vegetables.
Tropical fruits, specifically ripe and not dried, are commonly eaten on the second night, the weirder and more wonderful the better, as the Shehecheyanu blessing is recited over them to celebrate the new experience. An exotic fruit popular at festive tables is the pomegranate, as Jewish folklore maintains that every fruit holds 613 seeds, one for every commandment in the Torah. You’ll have to count them yourself to get to the bottom of that one.
At many spreads, you’ll often see a whole fish on display, head and all, the idea behind the gesture being that the New Year will be as plentiful as fish in the sea. It also harks back to the biblical phrase, ‘may we be the head and not the tail’. Recited over dinner, it’s a reminder to stay ahead of the game in all our efforts over the year ahead.
Challah bread in all its gloriously bulbous circularity (if your baking goes to plan, that is) represents the eternal circle of life, while the honey we dip it into is eaten in hope of a sweet new year. The apple is another usual suspect for a dunking in the honeypot, itself symbolising hope for a year of abundance and a fruitful Jewish nation. As Solomon proclaims in Song of Songs: ‘As the apple is rare and unique among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved [Israel] amongst the maidens [nations] of the world.’
It’s not just our Jewish ancestors’ sweet tooth that puts honey at the head of the festival table. Although the Hebrews traipsed across Egypt to find the Promised Land a barren desert, Israel has forever been known as ‘the land of milk and honey.’ Back then it was simply a spiritual metaphor for a Jewish homeland blessed with fertility. With such a small group of people contributing so significantly to the world’s advancement, producing just shy of a quarter of history’s Nobel Prize winners, it truly has earned its status as a nation bearing fruit in every sphere of public life.
The milk referred to in the Bible was goats, and the honey, not from bees, but pulped over-ripe dates. But today, despite unfavourably hot and arid conditions, Israeli cows have gone on to produce more milk than any other nation in the world as a result of decades of hard work in the dairy industry. While still big on dates, responsible for 75% of the world’s Medjool exports, Israel have dipped more than a toe into the honey industry, going above and beyond to rescue its bees from a sticky situation. With the world’s bee population dwindling to dangerous levels, Israeli bees are thriving due to the Israeli Honey Board making huge strides in bee immunity research.
So when you take a bite of honey cheesecake this Rosh Hashanah, you’d do well to chew over how through sheer persistence and dedication, the Jewish people, against all adversity have forged themselves an oasis from the desert.