The special foods of Rosh Hashanah
There are 10 special foods that we associate with Rosh Hashanah, and it is a customary to set them all out on the table for the holiday. We say a special prayer for each of them, using their Hebrew names as a kind of pun that ties into the themes of the holiday. Rabbi David Golinkin tells us that there is controversy as to whether they are simply looked at, held or eaten. This is because in the Aramaic language, the word for “hold” and “look at” are very close. I suppose that once they are held, many concluded that one does what one should do with food, which is to taste it.
Tangentially, this actually mirrors the debate in using the fringes at our recitation of the Shema. Some claim that we should merely look at them as we recite the third paragraph; some claim that we should be holding them as we look at them; and some claim that we should be kissing them as we mention the words “tsitsit” or fringes. But let’s get back to our main topic—the various Rosh Hashanah foods and what they symbolize.
There are actually 10 special foods, reminding us of the 10 days of repentance. The first two, and foremost, are the honey and apples. Honey reminds us that we hope for a sweeter year than we had the year before. Apples remind us, some say (since Rosh Hashanah is a reminder of the birth of the world in the very beginning of creation), of the very first fruit with which we sinned. Taking apples with honey in hand symbolizes making a claim to heaven that we will use God’s bounty only for mitzvah and not for transgression. Over these items we say, “May it be your will, our God, that we have a year that is sweet and good.”
The third food is typically a piece of gefilte fish, or, if you are really ambitious, the head of the fish. I remember, as a young rabbi, utilizing a fish head with little children at a Rosh Hashanah service in which we said blessings over these symbolic foods. That was a mistake! The children were frightened. Well, you learn from your mistakes. Therefore, a small piece of gefilte fish does the trick and we can intone, “May we be for a head and not a tail,” meaning, “May we be leaders who are in charge in the next year.” There is a custom to have yet another fish on the table with which we remember that God’s eye of providence is one that neither sleeps nor slumbers, and this is true of fish as well, which apparently never shut their eyes.
The fifth item on the platter should be leeks, which in Aramaic are called “kra.” The same word is used to form the word “karet.” Variations celebrate God, who is koreth Brith, symbolizing the making of a covenant with us or to hope that we should avoid being “cut off.”
The sixth item is dates. A date, in Hebrew, is the word “tamar.” With dates in hand we recite, “May it be your will, Lord God, that all our suffering be finished. (Itamu tzaareinu)
Black beans or “rubia” are held in hand and we say, “May we be as numerous as the stars of the sky”–yirbu zaareinu ke cochavei Elyon”.
A gourd, or “keri,” is another food held in hand as we say, “May Hashem hear our prayers when we cry out to him (beyom Koreinu).”
Pomengranates or “rimonim” also have a place at the table. We intone, “May our mitzvoth be as numerous as the rimon.” Not too long ago there was an article in the Jewish week of a woman who had made a practice of counting the seeds of many rimonim, and then averaging the number. Strikingly it was close to 600.
Last, but not least, we include the “selek” or beet. With the beet, we intone, ”Our God and God of our ancestors, make evil be banished from us” (sheyistalek meitanu Kol rah).
I encourage you all to include in your holiday shopping at least some of these items, perhaps not all of them. But if you can find them all why not!? You would be surprised how they help to set the tone for this important holiday of the new year!
May all of us have no suffering, may evil be banished from us, may your year be sweet and your mitzvahs many. May Beth and I take this moment to wish all of you a Shana Tova Oome Tooka, a sweet, joyful and healthy new year.