At sundown on Wednesday, Sept. 24, Jews around the world will celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, but not with Champagne and fireworks. It is a time for reflection and prayer. And, of course, food.
Rosh Hashana begins the High Holy Days — 10 days of contemplation and repentance that end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
For Jews, Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year.
Jews around the world celebrate the High Holy Days with services in the synagogue and rituals in the home.
Even though Rosh Hashana is a deeply religious holiday, it is also a time of hope with the beginning of a new year, which is determined by the Hebrew calendar, so it varies from year to year, falling either in September or October. And, as is the custom for all Jewish holidays, it begins at sundown.
Families traditionally gather for a festive meal before services at the beginning of Rosh Hashana. Around the world, Jews dip apples or other fruit in honey to symbolize their wish for “sweetness” in the coming new year and serve a round challah, rather than the traditional oblong braided bread, to illustrate the continuing cycle of life. The rounded challah is said to resemble a crown in recognition of God as King.
Claudia Roden, in her award-winning “The Book of Jewish Food,” describes different food traditions celebrated by Jews in different parts of the world.
In Egypt, her native country, Jews dip apple slices first in water with a little lemon juice and orange-blossom water and then in sugar. Challah is often made in the shape of a ladder, representing life’s ladder, or in the shape of a bird from the words of Isaiah, “As hovering birds, so will the Lord protect Jerusalem.”
Just as Southerners eat black-eyed peas for New Year’s Day, Jews in some Mediterranean countries eat fresh or dried black-eyed peas as a symbol of abundance. Other communities, Roden writes, eat chickpeas, rice and couscous with sesame seeds.
“The New Year is a time for sweet things,” she writes. “In some countries, even meat, chicken and vegetable dishes are sweet. Potatoes are replaced by sweet potatoes, onions are caramelized and meats are cooked with quince, prunes, dates and raisins, and, sometimes, also with sugar or honey.”
One of the oldest Rosh Hashana traditions is the eating of pomegranate because it is so frequently mentioned in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. According to legend, the many pomegranate seeds represent the number of good deeds that each person will do in the new year.
In many American congregations, it is a tradition to host a reception, or Rosh Hashana Oneg, immediately following services on the eve of Rosh Hashana. Members of the congregation prepare an array of homemade sweets, which are served with the round challah and apples with honey. It is a time for Jews to extend to each other the age-old greeting, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
Here are recipes for some traditional dishes served at dinner on the eve of Rosh Hashana: