Rosh Hashana

Seder Rosh Hashana: Symbolic Foods and New Year Wishes

Since the days of the Talmud the foods on the holiday table have been transformed into informal symbols of our New Year wishes.
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program

Rosh Hashana’s evening meal may encompass an ancient custom of eating symbolic foods, a mini-seder, if you will. The family tastes (or at least holds up for a New Year’s wish) a variety of foods whose name, shape or color remind us of our greatest hopes for the New Year.

This custom corresponds to the beginning of the year – a time of hope mixed with apprehension. The High Holidays – Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim) – are days of judgment – “Who will live and will die? Who will get rich and who will fall into poverty?” Yet they are also “good days” (Yontof – Yom Tov) for sumptuous celebration around the table, when we purchase new dress clothes for the whole family to wear on Rosh Hashanah.

Since the days of the Talmud the foods on the holiday table have been transformed into informal symbols of our New Year wishes. Best-known are the apples dipped in honey that symbolize a sweet year. Yet even the most ordinary vegetables, seasonal fruits and miscellaneous foods provide us an occasion to wish away our fears and verbalize our deepest hope, as well as a chance to pun on their names in any number of local tongues.

Honey is usually dipped with challah – usually round-shaped like a rising circular staircase (to recall how people ascend or descend the ladder of Divinely determined destiny). The circular breads also represent the circularity of time.

There are other holiday motifs, such as surrounding the challah with a wreath of flowers or other decorations to recall the crowning of the Divine King on Rosh Hashanah. After reciting the blessing over bread, hamotzi, everyone wishes one another: May it be God’s will that a good and sweet year be renewed for us.

The dipping of bread at each meal often continues from Rosh Hashana all the way to the end of Sukkot. Jewish women from Poland and southern Russia used to place honey in the four corners of their homes for luck. (Candy might serve the same role today).

Some families buy a special fruit or vegetable just now in season, one that has not been eaten for at least a year, and bless it on the second night of Rosh Hashana. This custom too may be combined with the Seder Rosh Hashana, but it also has significance for Jewish law. For it is not clear on what basis we recite Shehechiyanu – the blessing reserved for a new food or object or a beginning of a new holiday – even on the second night of Rosh Hashana. By adding a new fruit, one has an uncontested reason for reciting Shehechiyanu even on the second night.

The Rosh Hashana seder finds its earliest written source in a peculiar menu whose symbolic significance is not revealed:

For a good omen on Rosh Hashana one should make it a habit to eat squash [like pumpkin], legumes [like string beans], spinach and dates.” (Talmud TB Keritot 6a)

Tunisian Jews often “publish” a French and Arabic menu called the “Honey Page,” for it lists all the special foods to be eaten and to be used to symbolize New Year’s wishes. Of course, it is headed by the word d’vash (honey).

Then the list often continues with figs, dates, pomegranates, apples, and the head of a ram or a fish. Other lands add carrots and beets, but obviously any food will do as long as you have a creatively corny sense of humor and a willingness to share your greatest fears and hopes.

Traditionally the head of a lamb or a carp is the occasion for a blessing (though vegetarians might perhaps substitute a head of cabbage or a head of lettuce):

May it be God’s will that we will be a head and not a tail.

Spinach or beets, called in Hebrew seleck, which can also mean “to remove decisively,” elicit the New Year’s wish:

May it be God’s will that our enemies be removed from our presence.

Pomegranates, filled with numerous sweet seeds, traditionally are associated with the 613 mitzvot, so the blessing is :

May it be God’s will that our lives may be as full of mitzvoth as the pomegranate is with seeds.

Carrots or squash, which are called respectively, gezer (decree) or kara (tear up or read) are used for:

May it be God’s will that the evil decrees aginst us be torn up and our good merits be read out before You.

For dipping challah, we might use this Hassidic wish:

“May God create yeast in your soul, causing you to ferment, and mature, to rise, elevate, to your highest possibilities, to reach your highest self.”

Let us suggest some contemporary “green grocer” wishes punning in English on the shape, name or color of these fruits and vegetables:

  • Dates: May it be God’s will that all my single friends have many dates this year.
  • Tomatoes or Hot Peppers – May it be God’s will that this be a red-hot New Year.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg suggested:

  • Peaches – May we have a “peachy” year!
  • Brussels Sprouts– May our good fortune “sprout”! 

Others bring leaf of lettuce, raisins and celery:

Let us pray that our employers will raise our salary.

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