For most of us, the start of a new year is the chance to go after our goals, dreams and ambitions on the best note possible. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is about doing that literally, with primarily sweet food served to usher in a sweet year of blessings and abundance. The foods on the table are richly symbolic and meaningful. Whether you’re hosting or attending a supper, check out our guide to Rosh Hashanah foods.
Apples and Honey
Apples and honey are almost synonymous with Rosh Hashanah. One reason is practical: Apples are hardy and can survive a variety of climates, whether harsh or mild, so they could make appearances at meals no matter the season. There’s also a metaphorical aspect. Some fruit trees shade their produce with new leaves, but apple trees offer their fruit no such protection. Being different could make these trees vulnerable, yet they thrive regardless-a sentiment carried by the Jewish people. Honey, of course, is a sweet, perfect for symbolizing the start of the year. The tradition of dipping apples in honey dates back hundreds of years and was mentioned in the writings of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, who codified Jewish law in the 1300s. Today, many tables will showcase apple honey cakes. (We also love these simple baked apples with honey.)
The second night of Rosh Hashanah is time to enjoy the “new fruit,” or seasonal produce that hasn’t been tasted since the start of the season. The fruit symbolizes gratefulness for being alive and allowing us to taste all the delicious fruit the world has to offer. The most typical new fruit is the pomegranate for its biblical significance-the Land of Israel was known for its pomegranates, and it’s one of the “seven species” of Israel-and for its abundant seeds. It’s hoped that good deeds and actions will be just as copious! (Learn the easiest way to seed a pomegranate.)
Another of the most recognizable features of a Rosh Hashanah meal, this braided egg bread is typically served on Shabbat. During Rosh Hashanah, the bread is shaped into spirals or rounds to symbolize continuity. The challah is often dipped in honey before eating, and shared around the table. Serving homemade honey challah is extra-special; the braiding is easy enough to learn quickly.
Like challah, honey cakes are symbolic of the desire for a sweet, positive upcoming year. Most families have their own generations-old recipes, but it usually includes spices such as cloves, cinnamon and allspice, with some variations calling for coffee, tea or rum mixed in for greater flavor. Our honey cake recipe adds walnuts to add a depth of flavor to the spice.
Given that Rosh Hashanah translates to “head of the year,” a head has to make an appearance somewhere on the menu. While this may include the head of a sheep or rooster, it’s often as simple as a whole roast fish. As a bonus, fish symbolize fertility and abundance. Vigilant, ever-swimming fish promote a new year of awareness and hard work. (Psst: Vegetarians can swap in a head of cabbage or garlic.)
Couscous with seven vegetables
This is one of the few savory options you’ll see on the table. The multitude of couscous beads represent the number of blessings you hope to have, while the number seven is considered fortuitous, as God made the world in seven days.
Leeks, chard or spinach
Like most Rosh Hashanah foods, the symbolism is tied to a pun on its Hebrew name–in this case, a close cousin of the word karet, which translates to “cut.” Eating leeks means hoping those who wish us ill will instead be cut off and their bad intentions punished. Learn to prep leeks without the grit.
Sweet dates, another of the seven species of Israel, may not seem to have much in common with leeks. But the Hebrew name, t’marim, also relates to punishing enemies-in this case, finishing them off. (Note that some rabbis believe that eating these foods actually symbolizes ending our own prejudices.) On a happier note, when the Torah refers to Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey,” that means date honey.
Whether you’re cooking recipes passed down in your family for generations or joining loved ones for your first Rosh Hashanah, the day is one to honor the past and welcome in a year as sweet as the honey you’ll use to smother your challah.