The Symbolic Foods of Rosh Hashanah—and Their Meanings—Explained
On Rosh Hashanah, one of the "High Holy Days" in the Jewish faith, friends and family come together to break bread (rich, eggy challah!) and celebrate the Jewish New Year with a long and lavish meal or seder. But before the parade of dishes begins, the table is laden with symbolic foods, placed in bowls or plates, and after the kiddush (blessing over the wine) is said and pieces of challah dipped in honey, the leader of the household picks up each food, says the appropriate blessing, and eats it, almost as if to absorb those wishes. The other guests follow the example, and with each food, the cycle repeats itself. "The symbolic foods are called simanim (signs) and each one symbolizes a different wish for the new year," explains explains Kenden Alfond, founder of Jewish Food Hero, author of Feeding Women of the Bible, Feeding Ourselves: A Jewish Food Hero Cookbook, ($21.71, amazon.com) and other cookbooks, and creator of a Jewish holiday calendar ($19.95, etsy.com).
Traditions vary between Ashkenazic Jews or Ashkenazim (those from Central and Eastern Europea), Sephardic Jews or Sephardim (those from Spain or Portugal), and Mizrahi Jews (those from North Africa and the Middle East who don't descend from Germany or Spain) as well as different families. "In recent years, some Ashkenazic families have adopted the Sephardim custom of eating simamin at the start of the meal. This is especially prevalent in Israel, where there is a strong integration between the communities," says Alfond.
Symbolic Foods on the Table
Apple slices dipped in honey, symbolizing hopes and wishes for a sweet new year, are among the simanim. "The apple was chosen instead of a different sweet fruit, because it reminds us of the Garden of Eden, which smelled like an apple orchard," says Alfond. "When the Hebrew Bible refers to honey, it is referring to date honey, not honey from bees." Contemporary hosts can also use date honey instead of bee honey, she says, making the pairing a "one hundred percent vegan affair."
But sweetness is just one wish. She says that simanim may also include: "Dates, for the ending of enmity; pomegranates, our wish to be as fully of mitzvot [good deeds done of free will] as the number of pomegranate seeds; rubia: string beans (Indian tradition), fenugreek (Yemenite tradition), sesame (Libyian tradition), or dried beans (Egyptian tradition) that our merits increase; pumpkin, that evil decrees be torn away from us; beets/beet leaves/spinach, that our enemies will retreat; leeks/chives/scallions, that our enemies be cut off; fish head, we should be a head and not a tail (in other words, leaders instead of followers); sheep's head, that we should be leaders." And some households also include carrots, symbolizing an abundance of spiritual merits.
On the second night of Rosh Hashanah it's also traditional to eat a new fruit, meaning one that hasn't been eaten in the last year, like the pomegranate, and say the shehecheyanu blessing, giving thanks for experiencing something new. But that's not the last of the simanim. Some cooks mix the foods into other holiday mainstays, too, underscoring the symbolism. Honey is used in honey cake, for instance, while carrots are turned into carrot salads, or tzimmes, a root vegetable stew with dried fruits. "Askenazi Jews have a tradition of eating tzimmes on Rosh Hashanah because it is a sweet food," says Alfond.
She also points to examples of simanim-inspired main dishes, side dishes, and desserts from other parts of the globe, like a Libyan spicy fish stew, Egyptian fried pumpkin with honey and cinnamon, and Persian date cake. Then there's the dish that everyone makes room for: Latkes (or fritters, typically potato) made with symbolic leeks, fish, pumpkin, or even carrots or beets.