The symbolism of the Rosh Hashanah festive table

Rosh Hashanah this year falls on the heels of Labor Day and, no, it’s not early this year. This is precisely when it should be on the lunisolar calendar, so Jews around the world are busy preparing both familiar and symbolic foods for the festive New Year’s meal, even as they still shake off the sand from the beach of their shoes.

First among the familiar foods on the holiday table is round challah, the egg-rich sweet bread whose shape represents the cyclical nature of the year. Then there are freshly harvested apples to dip in honey, reflecting the desire for a sweet new year. In fact, we shy away from including anything sour or bitter in our meal for fear of bringing sadness into our lives.

But, beyond these traditional staples, there are myriad others that reflect the Jewish love of symbolism and puns. The Talmudic sage Abaye wrote that it is not enough to see these symbols of good luck; we have to eat them. So, put on your elastic waistband pants and pull up a chair.

The first food that Abaye says should be part of a Rosh Hashanah meal is squash or, more specifically, pumpkin. A Hebrew word for pumpkin is kara, which sounds like the word for “read” or “proclaim”. Our hope, then, in serving a pumpkin dish, is that our merits will be proclaimed.

Then we come to a culinary misinterpretation. An early translation of the Aramaic text of the Talmud states that rubiya are black-eyed peas, so dishes made with them became popular because rubiya relates to the Hebrew word rov, which means “many”, something that we want in the coming year. Although the actual word for black-eyed peas in Hebrew is luvya, that did not stop Egyptian Jews from enjoying it, as did Sephardi Jews (those whose families came from the Iberian Peninsula) who settled in the southeastern United States.

Next on Abaye’s list of symbolic foods is leeks. The Aramaic karsi means leek and is similar to the Hebrew kara, “to tear”. We eat leeks in the hope that our enemies will be snatched away so that we can live in peace.

Rosh Hashanah offers the possibility of preparing one of my favorite vegetables, beets. The Hebrew word for beet, selek, sounds like the Aramaic word silka, or “to remove.” In other words, as with the leek, we eat the beet in the hope that our enemies will be eliminated. But beyond that fervent desire, the deep, rich scarlet of the beet is reminiscent of royalty. We should both treat others and be treated like kings and queens.

Everyone loves desserts, right? Rosh Hashanah is full of apple cakes and honey cakes. But, for the evocation of the biblical land, it is difficult to beat the dates, the last item on our Talmudic list. The Hebrew word for the date and the palm tree it grows on is tamar. It is related to teemayr, “to stand straight up”. We wish to be straight and upright like the date palm. And, I would add, sweet and sensual!

Jews have been around for four thousand years, and with each generation it seems another symbolic food takes its place on the table. Among them is the fish head. As gross as it sounds, on many Rosh Hashanah tables you will find one, the word for “head” being rosh. In the coming year, we wish we could be leaders, or heads, rather than tails, or followers. Fish are also the symbol of the fertility and abundance to which we aspire. My suggestion is to get a smoked whitefish which you can then serve at Sunday brunch.

It is customary to partake of the pomegranate on Rosh Hashanah, based on Jewish legend the fruit has 613 seeds, the same number of commandments found in the Torah. We enjoy shimmering ruby ​​red pomegranate seeds at New Years in hopes of increasing the number of commandments we fulfill. In recent years, the pomegranate has become an “it” food because of its richness in antioxidants. The good news for us is that the fruit’s newfound popularity is making it much easier to find in grocery stores.

A final traditional food among Ashkenazim, or Eastern European Jews, is carrots, most commonly found in tzimmes, a sweet and succulent side dish. I found several explanations for this inclusion. The first is that the Hebrew word for carrot is gezer, which is similar to the word gzayrah, or “decree,” and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which comes ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the Book of Judgment will be sealed. with the decree for each of us for the coming year. Another explanation is that the Yiddish word for “carrots” and “more” is merren. Thus, we eat dishes prepared with carrots in the hope that we will have more of all good things, such as health, wealth, knowledge.

After preparing all the dishes above, they can spill over onto your dining room table. Again, a life overflowing with abundance and joy is precisely what our food symbolizes.

Hoppin' John

Hoppin’ John

For 4-5 people

It is customary in the South to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck. Some food historians believe that this custom was adopted from the Rosh Hashanah tradition of the Sephardic Jews who settled there. This recipe accomplishes several things. First, it includes black-eyed peas, which are on Talmudic sage Abaye’s must-have list of symbolic foods. Second, it’s a great dish to gift vegetarians among your family and friends. Full of protein, folate, fiber and vitamins A, C and K, it is very healthy. And, it’s absolutely delicious.


3-4 tablespoons of olive oil

2 large onions, chopped

6 garlic cloves, minced

2 cans of black-eyed peas

Vegetable broth as needed

1 bay leaf

Cumin, red pepper, coriander, salt – all to taste

1 can diced tomatoes

Fresh spinach, kale, collard greens or mustard greens, trimmed and washed


Heat the oil in a large heavy pot and sauté the onions and garlic until the onions are soft.

Add beans and 1 cup broth, bay leaf, spices and canned tomatoes.

Heat until liquid and spices are well absorbed. Don’t let it get too dry.

Add the fresh vegetables about 5-6 minutes before serving.

Remove the bay leaf before serving.

Serve with rice and cornbread.

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