Jewish Holidays and Food
Throughout the year, Jewish holidays are wonderful times for gathering with family and friends. Favorite holiday memories and traditions often center around food – sweet honey cake at Rosh Hashanah, crispy potato latkes at Hanukkah, tender matzah balls at Passover and so much more. The special foods associated with Jewish holidays vary according to people’s cultural heritage and family customs, with delicious differences between Ashkenazic (Eastern European) and Sephardic (Spanish/Middle Eastern) traditions and flavors. For all of us, the special aromas and flavors of Jewish foods fill our senses and add to our celebrations.
Each week, the Sabbath is an opportunity for us to pause our too-busy lives, rest, re-focus and re-connect with family and friends – whether observing the Sabbath strictly with prohibitions on work and other areas of our lives or simply enjoying a meal with dear ones, whether at home or in a restaurant. Friday night blessings over candles, wine and challah can quickly immerse us in the spirit of Shabbat shalom (peace) by involving all of our senses while special traditional foods often get modern twists – gluten-free challah, vegetarian or vegan main dishes instead of chicken or brisket and the addition of exciting flavors from around the world.
Often called “the Birthday of the World,” Rosh Hashanah is a time of discovery, introspection and new beginnings. Wishes for a sweet new year are expressed in foods such as crispy autumn apples dipped in honey, tzimmes (sweet stew usually of meat, carrots, sweet potatoes and prunes), rich honey cake and Sephardic tispishti (a walnut cake with sweet syrup). Other foods, such as carrots cut into rounds like coins and black-eyed peas are eaten for prosperity while round challahs symbolize long life and eternity. On the holiday eve, Sephardic Jews sit down to a special “seder” to welcome the new year with seven symbolic foods and blessings.
A holiday known more for its lack of food, Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – is a time to reconcile with each other and with God. Prayer and fasting force us to suspend our daily existence; physical abstinence deepens us spiritually with greater appreciation for our everyday life. The evening break-fast is often a light meal of dairy foods such as sweet noodle kugel, cheesy blintzes, eggs, salads, bagels and fish such as herring, whitefish and lox. For Turkish Jews, the traditional first break-fast taste is delicious homemade preserves of quince and other fruits served with a rehydrating glass of water.
Beginning just four days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot coincides with the harvest when workers in Biblical times would live in temporary huts in the fields. It also commemorates the 40 years the Israelites lived in temporary shelters while wandering in the desert. Sukkot is a joyous eight-day celebration when we build and eat (and sleep!) in temporary outdoor structures, decorated with fresh fruit, gourds and other decorations hung from roofs of branches open to the stars. Fall foods such as pumpkin and squash are served along with cabbage, grape leaves, peppers and other stuffed vegetables symbolic of a “full” harvest.
Falling the day after Sukkot, Simchat Torah – Rejoicing with the Torah – celebrates with humor, joy and song the completion and immediate beginning again of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah, Jewish written law. Children are given honey so they “taste” the sweetness of the Torah. An Ashkenazic tradition is eating kreplach (aka Jewish wonton), dough stuffed with meat filling then boiled and served in chicken soup or fried and served as a side dish.
The first recorded holiday celebrating religious freedom, Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem, wrecked by idol worshippers and recaptured by the Maccabees and their followers around 165 BCE. Only one day’s worth of sacramental oil for the Eternal Light was found, but miraculously it lasted the eight days needed to prepare more. Thus, Hanukkah is known as the Festival of Lights – with one more candle on the nine-branched menorah lit each night – and also the festival of fried foods! It’s a good excuse for parties and eating potato latkes and foods fried in oil. Sephardim enjoy bimuelos, fried doughnuts sprinkled in cinnamon and sugar or coated in honey. Israelis popularized sufganiot, gooey jelly doughnuts, to Hanukkah festivities.
Around the time the sap begins to flow and fruit of trees begin to form, this New Year of the Trees is an early recognition of environmental awareness. Today it’s a kind of Arbor Day when people plant trees or donate money to environmental causes. A special “seder” focuses on three symbolic groupings of fruits and nuts as well as four cups of wine! The groups include those with pits (cherries, apricots, olives, dates, plums), those with outside shells that must be discarded (pomegranates, almonds and other nuts) and those that are totally edible (figs, grapes, apples, pears, berries).
Costumes, carnivals, plays, parodies and the consumption of liquor make Purim quite popular! In the synagogue, the Megillah is read, re-telling the story of how wicked Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews of ancient Persia was thwarted by the lovely Esther and her wise uncle Mordecai. There is the holiday custom of giving gifts of fruit and sweets, mishloah manot, to friends as well as the mitzvah (commandment to do good deeds) of donations to the poor. Hamantashen, Purim’s popular tri-cornered cookies filled with poppy seeds or preserved fruit, are said to represent Haman’s triangular-shaped hat.
A springtime holiday, Passover (Pesach) celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt with themes of liberation and rebirth that are at the heart of the re-telling of the Biblical story during the ritual holiday meal, the seder. The seder table is full of symbolic foods including charoset, which has nearly as many varieties as there are Jews, with the Eastern European apples-walnut-wine version perhaps most popular in the US. The many symbolic foods as well as the prohibition on eating hametz (leavening) – a reminder of the hasty departure from Egypt when the bread dough had no time to rise – make food intrinsic to this holiday perhaps more than any other time. Matzah and its by-products plus fresh vegetables and fruits (especially spring’s bounty of asparagus, leeks and strawberries) take their place at holiday tables along with favorites like matzah ball soup, brisket and mina, Sephardic pies of matzah with vegetable or meat filling.
Seven weeks after the second night of Passover, Shavuot connects the Israelites rebirth during the exodus to the redemption of receiving the Torah from God at Mt. Sinai during their wanderings. The 49-day period leading up to the holiday is also the time of the spring growing season and harvest in Israel. Along with staying up all night to study and show our eagerness to learn Torah, the custom is to eat grains, fresh fruit and dairy foods during Shavuot, making it a feast of blintzes and cheesecake.
Few days in history associate such disasters with one people – beginning with the devastating destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem in and exile of the people, to the association with Spain’s edict of expulsion in 1492 and beyond into modern times. A day of fasting and lamentation, it also represents the need for tikkun, repair of our incomplete world. In preparation, some maintain a simple, all-dairy diet for the week preceding the Tisha b’Av.
NOTE: The Jewish calendar uses the moon for basic calculations and then makes adjustments for the solar seasons so that certain holidays always occur in a particular season. Because of this, the actual dates for the Jewish holidays, which go by the Jewish months and days, move from year to year when compared to the strictly solar Gregorian calendar used in today’s world.