Holidays in any faith are about many things, and luckily one of those things is food. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, comes with one of the best lists of traditional and symbolic foods of any holiday, especially if you have a sweet tooth. This year, Rosh Hashana begins at sundown on Wednesday and ends at nightfall on Friday. Here’s a list of some of the foods Jews might eat as they celebrate:
Apple dipped in honey: One of the most iconic combinations of Rosh Hashana—and one of the most delicious—slices of apple dipped in honey are meant to symbolize the hope for a sweet year ahead. A blessing can be recited beforehand, usually in Hebrew. The translation: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree. May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year.”
Honey cake: The same idea applies for honey cake, with its sweetness a tangible and tasty manifestation of the hope for a sweet new year. Recipes differ—and many families swear by a particular one—but the best honey cakes are moist (get over it) and sweet with a depth and flair contributed by spices such as cloves, cinnamon or allspice, as well as ingredients like coffee, tea, orange juice or alcohol (like rum, rye or whiskey). It’s not uncommon for the baker in the family to make several honey cakes and deliver a few to friends and family to wish them, “Shana tova!” or “Happy new year!”
Pomegranate: The pomegranate symbolizes a hope to have a year filled with mitzvot, or “good deeds,” just as the fruit is filled with seeds.
New fruits: On the second night of the holiday, the table might include a new fruit, i.e. a fruit that has recently come into season or one that hasn’t been eaten in the last year, to symbolize the new start. Pomegranates might double as a new fruit for some; others might use star fruits, lychees or other fruits.
Round challah: Challah is a delicious staple of the Jewish table. But on Rosh Hashana it takes a different shape—instead of an elongated braid, Jews often serve round loaves for the new year. In some interpretations, the shape symbolizes the cyclical nature of time, of seasons and holidays that repeat. Others compare the shape to a crown, alluding to the leadership of God and serving as a reminder that God is central to the Jewish faith. Like the apples, challah on Rosh Hashana is sometimes dipped in honey. Beforehand, some recite the HaMotzi blessing, which translates, “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”
Head of a fish: Not all the foods of Rosh Hashana are as appetizing and sweet as the rest. Some holiday tables will include the head of a fish (or sometimes of a ram or another kosher animal). The blessing here translates, “May it be Your will, Lord our God and the God of our fathers, that we be a head and not a tail.” In other words, since Rosh Hashana is the “head of the year,” the literal head represents the hope to be at the “head of the class” in the coming year, the desire to be a leader rather than a follower and the wish for a year of good fortune. The fish head can also symbolize fertility, prosperity and abundance.
Dates, Leeks, Beets: Several symbolic Rosh Hashana foods are the result of puns or plays on words. For example, the date, or tamar in Hebrew, is a pun on the word tam, which is the verb “end.” The leek, or karsi in Aramaic, is related to the Hebrew word karat, which is the verb “cut,” or karas, which means “collapse.” The beet, or selek in Hebrew, is similar to the Hebrew verb sillek, which means “take away,” “dismiss” or “banish.” The related blessing translates, “May it be Your will, Lord our God and the God of our fathers, that there come an end to our enemies, haters and those who wish evil upon us,” or “…that our enemies, haters, and those who wish evil upon us shall be cut down” or that they will be “dismissed.”
Gourd, Squash: Again with the puns! One word for pumpkin, gourd or squash in Hebrew is kara, which is similar to the words for “rip” and “announce.” The related blessing is, “May it be Your will, Lord our God and the God of our fathers, that the evil of our verdicts be ripped, and that our merits be announced before you.”