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Rosh Hashanah Food – Paul Konigstein (Nitzavim – 09/24/22)

Rosh Hashanah Food

By Paul Konigstein

With Rosh Hashanah only two days away, you’ve probably made or bought all the traditional foods you’ll be serving to your family. But have you ever wondered why we eat what we eat on Rosh Hashanah? I have, so I thanked G-d for Google, did some searching, and found that the reason for eating some foods is obvious. For others, the significance is more subtle.

In the obvious category is honey cakes, which are meant to usher in a sweet new year full of positive developments. Not so obvious is leeks, which are meant to help us get away from those who wish bad things upon us. Toxic people are meant to be “cut off” from our lives. For the two most popular Rosh Hashanah foods, the reasons for eating them are many.

We eat challah all year, but only on Rosh Hashanah do we eat round challah. There are lots of theories regarding the significance of the round shape:

  • The year is round.
  • A theme of Rosh Hashanah is the coronation of G-d. A round challah looks like a crown, for crowning G-d as king on Rosh Hashanah.
  • The round loaf of challah is a circle that represents infinity.
  • According to Chabad, round challah can symbolize G-d without beginning or end in one continuous form that does not change.
  • Round loaves are meant to bring a good life and blessings without end in the year ahead.
  • The wheel of fortune. No, not the game show. The wheel of fortune is meant to remind you that wealth and fortune are in G-d’s hands and not your own. Just as the wheel turns upward, it can also turn downward.
  • The Jewish community around the world. A raisin-studded round challah is meant to represent the Jewish community strung together across the world.

As with round challah, a multitude of reasons are given for eating apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah. The basic reason is that we should have a “sweet new year,” but there are many other reasons given for this custom as well:

  • A verse in Song of Songs that says, “Under the apple tree I aroused you,” is interpreted as a reference to the Giving of the Torah. So just as on Rosh Hashanah day we blow the shofar as a remembrance of the Giving of the Torah, we eat the apple at night.
  • The Torah is also compared to sweet honey, as in the verse in Song of Songs that states, “Your lips drip flowing honey, O bride; honey and milk are under your tongue.”
  • There is also a reason related to Gematria (/ɡəˈmeɪtriə/, the practice of assigning a numerical value to each Hebrew letter and adding the values of the letters together to produce a numerical value for a Hebrew word or phrase. The Talmud relates that on Rosh Hashanah, Sarah, Rachel and Hannah, who were all childless, were “remembered” by G‑d and conceived their children (Isaac, Joseph and Samuel respectively). The Hebrew word תפוח (tapuach, which means “apple”) has the same numerical value as the words פרו רבו (peru u’revu, which means “be fruitful and multiply”). And the Hebrew word דבש (devash, “which means honey”) has the same numerical value as אשה (ishah, which means“woman”). Therefore, by eating apples and honey, we are praying that women who need to be blessed with children should be blessed, just as Sarah, Rachel and Hannah were on this day.
  • Here’s more Gematria. The numerical value of the word דבש (devash, “honey”) is equal to the words אב הרחמן (Av Harachaman , “The Merciful Father”) which is included in Rosh Hashanah prayer. Thus, we eat the apple dipped in honey as we ask for G‑d’s mercy on this day of judgment.35
  • We use bee honey, for just as a bee stings but then gives sweet honey, so too we pray that we emerge from severity and judgment into sweetness.

You may think that these traditions were invented by challah bakers and apple growers to increase sales. However, a list of things to eat on Rosh Hashanah is codified in the sections of the Talmud that address omens. Keritot 6a says a person should be accustomed to eat, at the start of the year, gourd, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates, as each of these grow and multiply quickly, which is a good omen for the deeds of the upcoming year. Note that this reason for eating leeks, a good omen for the deeds of the upcoming year, is different from the tradition that evolved later, getting away from those who wish bad on us. Another section of the Talmud, Horayot 12a, gives the list as squash, fenugreek, leeks, chard, and dates, specifying the gourd as squash and substituting chard for dates. By the way, fenugreek is an herb similar to clover. Its seeds taste similar to maple syrup, so it can also symbolize a sweet new year.

Aside from being a good omen, there may have been another reason the Talmud specified certain foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Menachem Meiri was a medieval Talmudist who lived in Catalan, which is in present day Spain, in the generation following Maimonides. He explains that these foods serve to focus our attention on the agenda of the day: prayer, repentance, and resolution to do good. He says the custom was initially to look at or eat these foods and reflect on their meaning. With time, people became more engrossed in the eating and less in the meaning. Therefore, many adopted the custom to recite a short prayer before eating each food, to ensure that the meaning remained front and center. Contrast this to Yom Kippur, when we abstain from food rather than eat certain foods to focus our thoughts on prayer and repentance. Interesting that the sages believed that both eating and not eating could achieve the same result.

Finally, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, the Maggid of Brody Galicia in the 1800s explains that eating these foods is not a good omen but an expression of our faith that we will be inscribed for a good, sweet year. This faith, in itself, he explains, has the power to transform any negative decree into a positive one.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a sweet new year!

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