Merle Linde, working out of Malka’s Studio in Steveston Village, chose four symbols of Rosh Hashanah for her painting.
The shofar: the mournful cry, sounded 100 times during the traditional Rosh Hashanah service, evokes the freedom we gained when we returned to the Holy Land.
The pomegranate: a symbol of righteousness, knowledge and wisdom because it is said to have 613 seeds (arils), each representing one of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah.
The apples: slices dipped into honey are eaten to symbolize the desire for a sweet new year.
The honey: given to us by the bees, who can inflict pain with their sting and yet produce delicious honey. Linde would suggest that we eat only “sustainable” honey (the food of the bees) so that the bees can survive and continue to pollinate the pomegranate and apple trees.
L’shanah tovah u’metukah! Wishes for a good and sweet new year.
A round challah symbolizes a long life, or the unbroken circle of the full new year to come. (photo by Przemyslaw Wierzbowski)
On Rosh Hashanah, we are supposed to feast. Why? This is said to come from the passage in the book of Nehemiah (8:10): “Go your way, eat the fat and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our lord.”
Round, sweet challah
The most common Rosh Hashanah custom for Ashkenazi Jews is the making of sweet challah, primarily round in shape, to symbolize a long life or the unbroken circle of the full new year to come. Some people place a ladder made of dough on top of the loaf, so our prayers may ascend to heaven, or because it is decided on Rosh Hashanah “who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low.” Some place a bird made of dough on top, derived from the phrase in Isaiah: “as birds hovering so will the Lord of Hosts protect Jerusalem.”
According to John Cooper, in Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, the tradition in disparate Jewish communities of baking fresh loaves of bread on a Friday morning has its roots in the talmudic era. The custom was ignored by medieval rabbinic commentators, he writes, but was revived by the Leket Yosher, a report compiled by Joseph ben Moses in the 1400s on the teachings and practices of his teacher, Austrian Rabbi Israel Isserlin; and by Rabbi Moses Isserles, the 16th-century Polish scholar of halachah, at the end of the Middle Ages.
According to Jewish tradition, the three Sabbath meals (Friday night, Saturday lunch and Saturday late afternoon) and two holiday meals (one at night and lunch the following day) each begin with two complete loaves of bread. This “double loaf” (lechem mishneh) commemorates the manna that fell from the heavens when the Israelites wandered in the desert after the Exodus. The manna did not fall on Sabbath or holidays; instead, a double portion would fall the day before the holiday or Sabbath.
On the second evening of Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to eat a new fruit not yet eaten in the season and recite the Shehechiyanu, a prayer of thanksgiving for the first time something happens. It is said that, in Europe, this fruit was often grapes; in Israel today and around the diaspora, it is often the pomegranate.
The pomegranate is eaten to remind us that G-d should multiply our credit of good deeds, like the seeds of the fruit. For many Jews, pomegranates are traditional for Rosh Hashanah. Some believe the dull and leathery skinned crimson fruit may have really been the tapuach, apple, of the Garden of Eden. The word pomegranate means “grained apple.” In Hebrew, it is called rimon – also the word for a hand grenade!
Some say each pomegranate has 613 seeds for the 613 mitzvot, or good deeds, we should observe.
Symbolism of fish
The first course of the Rosh Hashanah holiday meal is often fish. Fish is symbolic of fruitfulness: “may we be fruitful and multiply like fish.” Fish is also a symbol of immortality, a good theme for the New Year, as are the ideas that we should aim to be a leader (the head) and that we hope for the best (to be at the top). Another reason for serving fish might be that the numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew word for fish, dag, is seven and Rosh Hashanah begins on the seventh month of the year.
Importance of tzimmes
Tzimmes is a stew made with or without meat and usually with prunes and carrots. It is common among Ashkenazi Jews, particularly those from Eastern Europe and Poland, and its origins date back to Medieval times. It became associated with Rosh Hashanah because the Yiddish word for carrot is mehren, which is similar to mehrn, which means to increase. The idea was to increase one’s merits at this time of year. Another explanation for eating tzimmes with carrots for Rosh Hashanah is that the German word for carrot was a pun on the Hebrew word, which meant to increase.
Tzimmes also has come into the vernacular as meaning to make a fuss or big deal. As in, they’re making such a tzimmes out of everything.
Lekach & other sweets
Among Ashkenazim, sweet desserts for Rosh Hashanah are customary, particularly lekach, or honey cake, and teiglach, the hard, doughy, honey and nut cookie. Some say the origin of the sweets comes from the passage in the book of Hosea (3:1): “love cakes of raisins.” There is also a passage in Samuel II (6:10) that talks about the multitudes of Israel, men and women, “to every one a cake of bread and a cake made in a pan and a sweet cake.”
Ezra was the fifth-century BCE religious leader who was commissioned by the Persian king to direct Jewish affairs in Judea and Nehemiah was a political leader and cup bearer of the king in the fifth century BCE. They are credited with telling the returned exiles to eat and drink sweet things.
According to Cooper’s Eat and Be Satisfied, references to honey cake were made in the 12th century by a French sage, Simcha of Vitry, author of the Machzor Vitry, and by the 12th-century German rabbi, Eleazar Judah ben Kalonymos. By the 16th century, lekach was known as a Rosh Hashanah sweet.
Among the Lubavitch Chassidim, it was customary for the rebbe to distribute lekach to his followers; others would request a piece of honey cake from one another on Erev Yom Kippur. This transaction symbolized a substitute for any charity the person might choose to receive, like the traditional kapparot ceremony, where, before Yom Kippur, one transfers their sins to a chicken.
Some Sephardi customs
Food customs differ among Jews whose ancestors came from Spain and Portugal, the Mediterranean area and primarily Muslim Arab countries. For example, whereas Ashkenazim dip apple in honey, some Sephardim traditionally serve mansanada, an apple compote, as an appetizer and dessert, according to Gil Marks (z”l) in The World of Jewish Desserts.
Just as gefilte fish became a classic dish for the Ashkenazi Jews, baked sheep’s head became a symbol – dating back to the Middle Ages – for many Sephardi Jews for Rosh Hashanah. Some groups merely serve sheep brains or tongue, or a whole fish (with head), probably for the same reason – fruitfulness and prosperity and new wishes for the New Year for knowledge or leadership.
The Talmud mentions the foods to be eaten on Rosh Hashanah as fenugreek, leeks, beets, dates and gourds, although Jewish communities interpret these differently. According to Rabbi Robert Sternberg in The Sephardic Kitchen, Sephardi Jews have a special ceremony around these and sometimes other foods, wherein each one is blessed with a prayer beginning “Yehi ratzon” (Hebrew for “May it be thy will”). The Yehi Ratzones custom involves preparing in advance and then blessing the Talmud-mentioned foods, or dishes made with the foods, as well as over the apples and honey, the fish or sheep head (some substitute a head of lettuce or of garlic) and pomegranate. In doing this, people recognize G-d’s sovereignty and hope He will hear their pleas for a good and prosperous year.
Sybil Kaplanis a Jerusalem-based journalist and author. She has edited/compiled nine kosher cookbooks and is a food writer for North American Jewish publications.
Rosh Hashanah greeting cards (above and below) from the author’s family’s collection. The cards are almost 100 years old. The translation of the one in which people are walking is “Into the synagogue.” It is signed by Chaim Goldberg, a well-known artist who also illustrated many children’s books. The party postcard, also done by Goldberg, is a printed rhyme, which translates as, “Boy, girl! Dear, refined! Who is like you? Happy letters, dear writings, I have for you!”
The Jewish calendar is an amazing conceptualization of time that has evolved (what else?) over time.
In his blog on the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot website, Ushi Derman relates that, originally, the Jewish calendar was a solar calendar. But it was not just a solar calendar, it was a holy solar calendar, delivered by angels to Enoch. (See the Book of Enoch, the section dealing with astronomy, called “The Book of Heavenly Luminaries.”) Temple priests had to follow a rigorous schedule – time itself was judged to be sacred. Thus, the Temple in Jerusalem was regarded as both the house of G-d and the dwelling of time.
With the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple, the priests lost their power. They were no longer the mediators between G-d and the people. Authority switched to the scholars (our sages) of the Mishnah (edited record of the Oral Torah), Talmud and Tosefta (similar to the Mishnah, but providing more details about the reasons for or application of the laws).
In a bold move, the scholars declared that G-d had handed religious authority to humans. “Each month, envoys were sent to watch the new moon and to determine the beginning of the month. Thus, the ownership of time was expropriated from G-d and delivered to man – and that is why the Hebrew calendar has survived for so many centuries,” writes Derman in the 2018 blog “Rosh Hashanah: The Politics and Theology Behind Jewish Time.”
Here is a lovely story from The Book of Legends, edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, illustrating the above change. A king had a clock. “When his son reached puberty, he said to him: My son, until now, the clock has been in my keeping. From now on, I turn it over to you. So, too, the Holy One used to hallow new moons and intercalate years. But, when Israel rose, He said to them, until now, the reckoning of new moons and of New Year’s Day has been in My keeping. From now on, they are turned over to you.”
Perhaps oddly, the Mishnah mentions more than one new year. In fact, it points out four such dates on the Jewish calendar:
The first of Nissan is the new year for kings and for festivals;
The first of Elul is the new year for tithing of animals (some say the first of Tishrei);
The first of Tishrei is the new year for years, sabbaticals and Jubilee, for planting and vegetables;
The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the House of Shammai, while the House of Hillel (which we adhere to today) says the 15th of Shevat, or Tu b’Shevat.
With its thrice daily prayers, the synagogue came to replace the Temple. Excluding Yom Kippur, synagogue attendance is higher on Rosh Hashanah than any other time of year. Rosh Hashanah prayers are compiled in a special prayer book, or Machzor.
Amid COVID-19, the following words about Rosh Hashanah have heightened meaning: “The celebration of the New Year involves a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, there is a sense of gratitude at having lived to this time. On the other hand, the beginning of a new year raises anxiety. What will my fate be this year? Will I live out the year? Will I be healthy? Will I spend my time wisely, or will it be filled in a way that does not truly bring happiness?” (See the Rabbinical Assembly’s Machzor Lev Shalem for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, published almost a decade ago.)
Sounding the shofar is one of the special additions to Rosh Hashanah services. According to Norman Bloom – in a 1978 article on Rosh Hashanah prayers in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought – the timing of the shofar blowing weighed in the physical safety and comfort of the congregation. Hard as it may be to comprehend today, scholars considered potential attacks from both local enemies of the Jews and from Satan himself. They also considered the comfort of the infirm, who might not be able to stay through a long service.
Rosh Hashanah has other curious customs. For example, there is a tradition of having either a fish head or, among some Sephardim, a lamb’s head as part of the Rosh Hashanah meal. This is meant to symbolize that, in the year to come, we should be at the rosh or head (on top), rather than at the tail (at the bottom). Vegetarians and vegans substitute a head of lettuce.
Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews have Rosh Hashanah seder traditions. The symbolic foods include beets, leeks, pomegranates, pumpkins and beans. As Rahel Musleah has pointed out, each food suggests a good wish for the coming year. Thus, before eating each one, people recite a special blessing. Humour is at play, too, as some of the blessings are puns on the food’s Hebrew or Aramaic name. (Read Musleah’s article “A Sephardic Rosh Hashanah Seder” at myjewishlearning.com/article/a-sephardic-rosh-hashanah-seder.) Of course, we cannot neglect to mention that the festive table also includes apples dipped in honey, for a sweet new year, and a round challah, symbolizing both the cycle of life and G-d’s kingship.
Another Rosh Hashanah custom is Tashlich. This ceremony involves going to a body of water to symbolically cast off one’s sins. Breadcrumbs are often used, as are leaves, but, seeing that COVID-19 will be a part of this year’s holiday, here is another suggestion. Originally, this activity was used with youth groups of the Reform movement – participants wrote out their sins and then the papers on which they were written were put through a paper shredder. A dramatic gesture, suited to our current need for social distancing.
My city, Jerusalem, is a land-bound city without a sea or lake in its immediate vicinity. So, what do residents of the capital do? Those who wish to practise Tashlich go to one of the following four sites. Two of the four places are near the Supreme Court: the Jerusalem Rose Garden and the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. Also in the same general area is the Botanic Garden in the Nayot neighbourhood and, in the Old City, one can go to the Shiloah Springs in City of David.
Wishing all readers a year of blessings and not of curses.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
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• Hebrew has a number of expressions using the word rosh. Here are just a handful of examples: rosh hamemshala (prime minister); rosh kroov, literally cabbage head, or a negative reference to someone who is not very bright; rosh katan, someone who is small-minded; l’kabel barosh, to be defeated; and rosh tov, or good vibes.
• Anyone interested in learning more about the solar calendar should read Prof. Rachel Elior’s article, “Enoch Son of Jared and the Solar Calendar of the Priesthood in Qumran,” which can be found in a Google search.
If you see me in the grocery store and I don’t recognize you, I’m sorry. I sometimes have a hard time remembering names and faces. Why? Well, it turns out that sleep deprivation can affect this kind of memory. Even though my kids sleep better now, for four-and-a-half years, they didn’t get through the night. Parents who have gone through this may know what I’m talking about. It’s embarrassing and depressing to feel like I’m losing my mind, but it’s lack of sleep! It’s not anything serious; just part of many families’ lives with young kids.
While I’m bemoaning this – I used to keep track of hundreds of students when I taught full-time – I can let you in on a little secret. Newsflash: we’re not perfect. Yup! Shocking, I know. We all have faults, challenges, difficulties and struggles. It’s normal. However, the secular New Year often comes with New Year’s resolutions and, right about now, they are testing people’s commitment everywhere. Only a few weeks ago, all around us, in the media and on the gym treadmills, many of us were committing to “fixing” our faults and making a big change(s). Some of us are, no doubt, already having trouble sticking to them. Don’t get me wrong, change, exercise, new promises – it’s all good.
When we look at the Torah portion for the beginning of the year (Jan. 6, Shemot/Exodus 1:1-6:1), we can enjoy both a good storyline and some thoughts about challenges. This is a portion that covers a lot of ground. The Reform Judaism Torah portion page summarizes it this way:
“The new king of Egypt makes slaves of the Hebrews and orders their male children to be drowned in the Nile River. (1:1-22)
“A Levite woman places her son, Moses, in a basket on the Nile, where he is found by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised in Pharaoh’s house. (2:1-10)
“Moses flees to Midian after killing an Egyptian. (2:11-15)
“Moses marries the priest of Midian’s daughter, Zipporah. They have a son named Gershom. (2:16-22)
“G-d calls Moses from a burning bush and commissions him to free the Israelites from Egypt. (3:1-4:17)
“Moses and Aaron request permission from Pharaoh for the Israelites to celebrate a festival in the wilderness. Pharaoh refuses and makes life even harder for the Israelites. (5:1-23)”
Here we are, looking at a portion about our leader, Moses. He’s likely confused about his identity, since he was nursed by his Jewish mother, but raised as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s house.
Moses is a person who kills someone else in anger and then runs away. He also – according to Rashi’s commentary – has a speech impediment and stutters, so he needs his brother to help him communicate. There’s much here. The short version is that we have a model of a leader with serious faults and challenges – and that’s OK.
Why? Well, the Jewish take on this is that we have to continually work on ourselves. We don’t get to stop learning, seeking forgiveness, or trying to do better. We have to keep on keeping on. So, while a new year (any new year, go ahead and pick one!) might help remind us of this, it’s meant to be a daily exercise. It’s not supposed to be easy, either. The Torah offers us multiple narratives about struggle, challenge, defeat and renewal. It’s up to us to read it and draw conclusions.
In the popular media, there’s a whole self-help genre. This stuff is sometimes helpful and, on occasion, you see that the website, book, podcast or article was a waste of time. Reading it can also make us feel worse and fuel our anxieties. However, the Torah, the rabbis and centuries of Jewish liturgy are part of this self-help tradition – of how to make ourselves into better people. The difference, in my opinion, is the emphasis on perfection. If you get sucked into it, you’ll have yourself believing that your house should be as perfect as the staged ones on HGTV, or that if you just exercised, dieted, exfoliated or botoxed enough, you, too, would look like the “ideal” you.
Judaism may offer an alternate reality. There is no such thing as perfect. We may have struggles or challenges, disabilities or personality flaws. Our Jewish goal, in this context, is to try hard to be better people. We may not be perfect in our work lives. Our bodies may not look like airbrushed super models – and that’s OK. We’re offered a text that includes powerful, important leaders who are just people. People, like Moses, with identity issues, anger management problems, physical challenges and a lack of confidence. There are people who struggle with defiance, disobedience and authority, and all kinds of other folks, too.
I think it’s fair to say that all of us struggle sometimes, and give in to the bad feelings. It’s knowing we’re not where we want to be – personally, professionally, physically or socially. I feel embarrassed every single time that I bump into someone who knows me and I don’t know them or cannot remember their name. Instead of beating myself up about it, I try to smile, say hello and embrace the (sleepless) situation I’ve got, and that might be the key to a good resolution. We can keep working on it, no matter where we are. In this way, Dec. 31 is no different than Jan. 31.
Or, as one of my kids (in Grade 1) says, “I will keep learning more science. I will learn more addition! I will use new, bigger, better tools for art.” In this way, we aren’t committing to feeling badly about where we are. We’re just trying for more, with no start or end date in mind.
Joanne Seiffwrites regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
That means right about now millions of New Year resolutions are kicking into high gear! (Isn’t it exciting!?) This will most likely peak around the 12th of the month due to those who don’t think a resolution kicks in until their hangover recovers, fading like a cheap pair of Old Navy jeans by around the 18th.
By Feb 1 everyone will be talking about how they don’t believe in New Year resolutions again.
I have never been a strong believer of waiting for set dates to take action toward any positive change. I believe that if someone wants to see a change enough to make it happen they have no need to wait for January 1st to get started.
That said, a new year does allow us sort of a mental re-set. Even if less than 10% actually stick to that new-year resolve, that’s more change than we’d likely see on the first day of any other month, right?
My resolve to make meaningful change in my life has been more of a progressive development than a sudden change that kicked off a few years ago.
Led by a successful diet adjustment that helped rid my body of extra weight I carried for years; I found success in an area I had previously written off as “not likely to ever happen” for my adult life. I parlayed the momentum of that accomplishment, considering what other aspects of my life could also be re-approached. I found many other successes and adventures I certainly wouldn’t have predicted three years ago, leaving a world of closed doors well behind me.
Now it is 2015. And in 2015 this guy turns 40!
While many fear the “big 4-0” and all that beginning-of-the-end anxiety that typically comes with it, I can’t wait to hit 40 in stride! I can’t think of a better time to take it all to a whole new level!
In 2015 I will continue to learn new skills, discover new talents, and experience new adventures.
I will make the world around me a better place and I will share it all with as many people as I can (starting with the pages of this blog!).
The question is, what will it all look like? What does this exciting, inspiring future hold? And who wants to join me for any of it?
I have some ideas of my own that we will explore here. But I’d like to hear your ideas as well. Give me your suggestions. Maybe you have an opportunity to share with others. Perhaps you are looking for help with your own unique journey.
Let’s make 2015 – and every year after that – EPIC!