With everything going on in the world this summer, from COVID-19 to climate crises, the idea of starting fresh with a new year in September is exceptionally appealing. Luckily for your Jewish friends, they get that chance for an early start every year with the holiday of Rosh Hashana. The Jewish calendar works a little differently than your standard Jan. 1 beginning. So this year, starting the evening of Sept. 6 and ending the evening of Sept. 8, we’re going to party like it’s 5782 (based on a different interpretation of when modern history began and a lunar calendar). And luckily, like most things related to Jewish festivities, the main celebration centers around food.
Traditions differ across different branches of Judaism, from the European Ashkenazi Jews to the Middle Eastern and African Sephardic Jews. But two themes exist across all Rosh Hashana food, and they are meant to symbolize ushering in a sweet and abundant new year. So, for sweetness, that typically includes an array of desserts (something we can all get behind) and for the cycle and continuity of the new year, there are always round foods. While there are a lot of different regional traditions, often the most symbolic food is centered around baking.
As Beth Lee, author of "The Essential Jewish Baking Cookbook" puts it, “Baked goods represent the sweet aspect of our hopes for the new year. Even challah, the traditional egg bread eaten on Shabbat every week and in the round on Rosh Hashana, has sugar or honey in it. Baked goods also give us a chance to incorporate other sweet symbolic foods like apples, honey, dates, and pomegranates."
So, start with baked goods and then decide what other traditions you want to incorporate: Rosh Hashana is a time for celebration, so there is never a right or wrong way to feed people. But here a few of the most common items:
Apples and honey
No matter what else shows up on a Rosh Hashana table, you will always find some interaction between apples and honey. The most basic symbolism is in its sweetness, and this combination has been mentioned for Rosh Hashana in ancient Jewish texts for hundreds of years. In the Bible, the Promised Land is described as "a land flowing with milk and honey." So, the sweetness of honey is especially symbolic. Apples are also viewed as hardy, like the Jewish people.
As for how to include it in your festivities: Most commonly, it is served simply as apple slices with some honey to dip it in — about as easy a combination as you could find. But it is often used thematically throughout the evening, ending with apple or honey cake — a round one, to indicate the continuity of the new year. There also are often desserts with dates, because most biblical scholars agree that the honey referenced in the Bible was made from dates. Lee suggests going all out on the baked goods with an array of desserts, like honey cookies, baklava, date and walnut thumbprints or baked apples.
Challah is the traditional bread typically seen on Shabbat (or the Jewish Sabbath) that is usually long, but on Rosh Hashana is most often circular — again for the symbolism of continuity. Challah is made with more eggs than most breads so it was always viewed as being a bit more special than other breads. It can be topped with sesame or poppy seeds — or really any array of toppings — to give it an extra celebratory element.
Pomegranates, like dates, are part of the Seven Species mentioned in the Bible as growing plentifully in Israel (the others are wheat, barley, grapes, figs and olives — all ingredients that also carry symbolism for Jewish events). But they are particularly important to Rosh Hashana for a number of reasons: Their 613 seeds (yes, every one has the same number of seeds) are said to represent the 613 commandments of the Torah and also indicate bounty and fruitfulness. But mostly, once again, it is a sweet food that has biblical roots.
Pomegranates or pomegranate syrup can be used across traditional foods for both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews — in meats like briskets or as additions to vegetable side dishes. And because of their color and decorative symbolism, they are often even just placed on top of the table.
The phrase Rosh Hashana literally means "head of the year," so a head is often symbolic at the table. It could be as elaborate as the head of a sheep or chicken, but it is most often from a fish. A whole fish with the head attached is often served to symbolize moving forward and making progress in the year to come.
There is always an abundance of greens and vegetables on the Rosh Hashana table — sometimes just to make a full meal, but other times, to demonstrate the many symbolic ways different Yiddish and Hebrew words can start the new year on the right foot. Leeks is the most common: The Hebrew word for leek is related to the word meaning "to cut," and its symbolism is to cut off anyone who wishes to hurt Jews. Similarly, the Hebrew word for beets is similar to the word "remove," so they are served in the same vein to remove anyone who wishes us harm.
The word for carrots in Yiddish is similar to "more," so some eat them to symbolize increased blessings to come. Whatever symbolism you believe in, the Rosh Hashana table always includes a plethora of vegetables to choose from.
On Rosh Hashana, there are no rules for what to serve — only to eat it in abundance and with a lot of sweetness to go around. Shana Tova!