The power of Rosh Hashanah food symbols came home to me, oddly enough, when we spent the holiday away from home. A work commitment required us to be in Nashville, so to mark the holiday we found places to attend services and had dinner at a nice restaurant. But there was no round challah, no apples and honey. I didn’t expect to miss them, but afterward it felt like the holiday celebration was incomplete without that food symbolism for a sweet new year.
Since then, even as I’ve explored Jewish-Italian cuisine and added dishes like polpettone di tonno (tuna loaf) and roasted butternut squash soup to my Rosh Hashanah menu, the apples, honey and round challah have always been a part of the holiday. But those powerful symbols aren’t the only ones to evoke good wishes for the new year—a rich variety of Jewish food traditions have long lent meaning and importance to Rosh Hashanah, and that’s because food itself has been such a uniting feature of Jewish life.
“Scattered across the map, Jews learned to preserve our core narratives by telling and retelling them, often in the vernacular of the lands in which we lived. Food—its shapes, its colors, its flavors—became our lingua franca,” says Cookie Mandell, who is the director of membership engagement at Temple Rodef Shalom and who teaches on the subject of Rosh Hashanah culinary traditions. She adds, “Food can be a powerful—and incredibly memorable—tool for animating our stories, our values and our traditions. What stories are important to you? How might you tell that story through food? Start small. Select a fruit or vegetable or ingredient and figure out how it relates to the story you cherish.”
Cookie’s advice is easy to follow once you have a sense of the themes and customs that have evolved and added significance to holiday celebrations around the world. Here are a few.
Round foods symbolize the cyclical nature of the year and hope that we see another full circle, and challahs made round might be one of the most recognized holiday round foods. Sliced carrots (which also symbolize gold coins and the wish for good fortune) often appear at tables in tzimmes (sweetened carrot stew). Other holiday dishes might also feature chickpeas, meatballs or chicken soup with round pasta.
The sentiment for the sweet new year is most often represented by honey, in which both apples and challah are dipped. Many desserts feature honey, like the Ashkenazic honey cakes or Italian fried fritters draped in honey. Savory dishes are also sometimes turned sweet, such as substituting sweet potatoes for white potatoes or adding sweet flavors or spices to meat and chicken dishes.
Numbers also add symbolism. The number seven is believed to bring good luck, and a traditional Moroccan holiday couscous is prepared with seven vegetables. Numbers also play a role in the pomegranate’s symbolism, because it is believed to have 613 seeds, the same as the number of commandments. In Cuba, Jews turn to the number 12, symbolizing the months of the year, and eat 12 grapes at midnight, like what Spaniards do to mark the secular New Year.
Some Sephardic Jews (those with roots in the Mediterranean region and also the Middle East and Asia) begin their Rosh Hashanah celebration with a seder (“order”) full of foods to symbolize wishes for the new year. This practice originated with the Talmud’s designation of five foods to be eaten for the holiday—gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets or beet greens/chard and dates. Through word plays on their Hebrew names, these and other foods were paired with wishes for the new year. For example, the word for fenugreek, rubiya, sounds similar to a word meaning increase, leading to its being a symbol for asking for our merits to increase. Through an accident of translation, black-eyed peas (lubiya) also became associated with that idea of abundance and thus a traditional holiday food as well.
Most seders feature at least seven foods, which vary according to local and family customs. Foods might include a fish head for the hope that we will be leaders, or the “head and not the tail” (fish also symbolizes fertility); dates dipped in a sweet mixture of anise and sesame seeds, which themselves are symbols of plenty; and one of several vegetables to represent the removal of enemies, such as beet greens, spinach and pumpkin. Olives with their long association with the land of Israel, and, of course, apples and honey, also show up.
Another tradition is to eat a new fruit—either one new for the season or one you haven’t tried before—reflecting the sense of renewal and rediscovery with the new year. Often the pomegranate, a holiday all-star, plays this role.
Vibrant green foods symbolize new beginnings, and families around the world feature dishes such as spinach, fava beans, green beans, zucchini and green olives. Pumpkin and dishes featuring saffron lend the golden hue that symbolizes joy and happiness. White foods such as milk halwa, a sweet custard enjoyed by Jewish families in India, evoke purity.
All these themes offer great potential for enriching our own celebrations, and also room for fun and creativity. In writing about Rosh Hashanah customs, Rabbi Jill Jacobs suggests the whole family might enjoy creating new English puns around food, giving as an example eating peas with the “hope of increased peace.”
From a culinary perspective, simply becoming conscious of ingredients and their symbolism adds dimension to the holiday meal. For my favorite butternut squash soup, for example, we can focus not only on the roasted and just slightly sweet flavor of fresh fall gourds, but also on the associated wish for evil decrees to be torn away and for the joy and happiness embodied in the golden color.
There’s also the chance to introduce new symbolic foods. One that intrigued me was black-eyed peas, not only for their association with abundance but also for the Jewish story behind what I had always regarded as a classic of the deep south, especially for the new year. Long before America was even colonized, Jews in Egypt and Turkey traditionally served the legumes for Rosh Hashanah. The peas also grew well in eastern Africa and became an important crop there. Although scholars differ on exactly how black-eyed peas became a January 1 tradition in the United States, one study suggests that the practice likely first comingled in the Caribbean, where African slaves may have adapted the new year idea from Sephardic Jews making the dish for Rosh Hashanah.
For a dish for my modern Rosh Hashanah table, I developed a vegetarian version that features the tomatoes, onion and garlic prominent in Egyptian and Turkish recipes. To capture that smoky meaty flavor of the stews of the American south—without the ham hocks, of course—I added smoked salt and canned chipotle chile with some of its smoky adobe sauce. The resulting stew is so richly satisfying and flavorful it could be a vegetarian main dish, especially served over rice or even polenta (a nod to the practice of Caribbean Jews, who served it over cornmeal mush). It could also take its place as part of seder.
But perhaps I’m most drawn to using it—to mark a holiday about new beginnings—as an appetizer, served in small mugs. That way, I can bring a new, flavorful, history-steeped wish for good luck to the holiday celebration right out of the gate.