You Are What You Eat
Ever year at Rosh Hashanah we wish our family and friends a "sweet year." But Jewish tradition encourages us to engage all our tastebuds when thinking about the year to come.
Over the next two weeks, many of us will eagerly anticipate sweet foods at the Rosh Hashanah table—challah studded with raisins, juicy apples alongside luscious honey, carrot tzimmes rich with brown sugar. But when I think back to the Rosh Hashanah tables of my childhood, the first thing that comes to mind is pickles. More precisely, the lack of pickles.
“Do you want to cry all year?” my father would demand when I bemoaned the absence of my favorite briny treat. Similarly banished from our first meal of the new year were vinegar, lemon juice, and horseradish, lest we consign ourselves to a bitter year.
Perhaps my family took this custom to an extreme, but the list of simanim (symbolic foods) to eat—or, less commonly, avoid—on Rosh Hashanah goes far beyond the ubiquitous apples and honey. The Talmud teaches that one should partake in good omens at the start of the new year, including “gourds, fenugreek, leeks [or cabbage], beets and dates.” Other simanim eaten today include carrots, pomegranates, and the head of a sheep or fish. Along with each food, a short supplication beginning “Yehi ratzon...” (“May it be Your will...”) is recited.
What makes these good omens? Some are obvious—dipping apples into honey puts a sweet taste into your mouth and, one hopes, a sweet new year into your future. Pomegranates, with their numerous seeds, carry a hope that our merits will increase. But many of the simanim rely on puns. For example, when eating a carrot—gezer in Hebrew—one expresses a hope that God will issue only good decrees—gezerot. Some people have even adopted new simanim with English-language puns: a composed salad of lettuce, celery, and raisins accompanies the request, “Let us have a raise in salary.”
Several communities, particularly among Sephardim, set out an elaborate seder, and everyone at the table partakes in each food together in an extended appetizer course. If the prospect of serving a dozen dishes before the soup seems daunting, you can still incorporate the simanim throughout the meal, from a salad containing beets and pomegranate seeds, to an entree of stuffed cabbage and tzimmes made with carrots and butternut squash, to a dessert plate featuring date squares.
As for the head of the fish, if the thought sends a chill down your spine, do what we do: buy a package of Swedish fish and bite off the heads.
Shana tova u’metukah! – May you have a good and sweet year!
Fish heads photo from IsraelPhotos.net.