Do You Know These Symbolic Rosh Hashanah Foods?

These traditional Rosh Hashanah foods are rich in meaning and symbolism. How many of these stories did you know?

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 Jewish foods for Rosh Hashanah. We have also curated a list of the best Jewish cookbooks so that you have recipes handy for holiday comfort foods, easy kosher meals, Israeli dishes and more!

Apples and Honey

Green apples and honey bowlHUIZENG HU/Getty Images

Apples and honey are almost synonymous with Rosh Hashanah. One reason is practical: most varieties of apples are hardy in many 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.

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.)

Pomegranate

Red Pomegranate Seeds in a BowlLiudmyla Chuhunova/Getty Images

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 deseed a pomegranate. Then sprinkle the seeds on this Rosh Hashanah green bean recipe.

Challah

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. We’ll show you how to make challah and nail that braiding step.

Honey Cake

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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.

Fish

Two raw fish preparation for Rosh Hashanahfortyforks/Getty Images

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 (vegetarians can swap in a head of cabbage or garlic). As a bonus, fish symbolize fertility and abundance. Vigilant, ever-swimming fish promote a new year of awareness and hard work.

Couscous with Seven Vegetables

Couscous with grilled vegetables: carrots, peppers and broccoli and yoghurt-mint sauce, parsley, pomegranate seedsWestend61/Getty Images

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 the world was created in seven days.

Leeks, Chard or Spinach

Fresh green baby spinach on plate on stone tableIrina Kozmova/Getty Images

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.

Dates

Dried dates fruits in bowlDan Iancu / 500px/Getty Images

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 heirloom family recipes or joining loved ones for your first Rosh Hashanah, it’s a time to honor the past and welcome a year as sweet as the honey you’ll use to smother your challah.

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Kim Bussing
Kim is a writer and creative consultant with more than a decade of experience publishing content about food and drink. She has told food and wine stories for top brands with household names, including Hilton and Marriott. Kim also writes about health and wellness topics, home decor and baking. For Taste of Home, she’s tackled stories about canned wines, cocktail kits, wine Advent calendars and much more. Kim’s passion is bringing together nutrition and joy in every meal and she’s always on the hunt for the perfect gluten-free cinnamon roll.