If it’s New Year, it’s apple cake... but why?

By Denise Phillips, September 4, 2008

Food is central to Jewish life, not only as nourishment, but also in a spiritual and religious sense. Many of our festivals are associated with dishes - for example, cheesecake on Shavuot, apple cake on Rosh Hashanah, and so on. But what is the source of these symbolic links and how have they evolved?

In the Torah itself, food is rarely mentioned except in the context of the dietary laws and sacrifices. However, subsequent generations of Jews have created powerful and highly symbolic food links in order to assist with the celebration of key events.

So, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, which foods symbolise the New Year?

Honey: This is the best-known example and it has an obvious link with a desire for a sweet year. However, in the Gematria, the numerical value of the Hebrew word for honey is 306 - our sages link this to the number of the opening words in one of the main prayers said at this season, Av Harachamim (Father of Mercy). It is also customary to dip the challah into the honey. I tend to go one further and actually make the challah with honey for added sweetness and flavour.

Apple: One of the other common practices at Rosh Hashanah is to dip a piece of apple into honey. This can be traced back to Bereishit, when Jacob went to his elderly and blind father, Isaac, and claimed the birthright that was due to the elder twin, Esau. Esau was a hunter and a "man of the field", and on the instructions of his mother, Rebecca, Jacob dressed up in Esau's hunting clothes. Isaac commented that his son smelt like a field which God had blessed. He went on to bless Jacob with wealth and power. Some commentators say that the "field, which God has blessed" refers to an orchard, and the smell of that orchard was the scent of the Garden of Eden.

Pumpkin: Pumpkin and gourds have thick skins, and so when we eat them we are expressing the hope that "as this vegetable has been protected by a thick skin, God will protect us and gird us with strength".
Black-eyed peas: The Aramaic name for black-eyed peas, rubiya or lubiya, sounds similar to the Hebrew word for "many" and thus expresses our hope for fertility and success.

Leeks: In Hebrew, leeks are karti, which means to cut. At Rosh Hashanah time, we wish that our enemies will be cut down.

Carrots: In Yiddish, the word for carrots is mehren, which also means "to increase". In many communities, carrots or fenugreek are eaten at Rosh Hashanah for a prosperous year.

Pomegranates: It is claimed that the pomegranate contains 613 seeds - the same as the number of commandments in the Torah, although I have never had the patience to check this one myself!
Fish: Another example of a food eaten for prosperity and growth, that we should multiply as a people and be as plentiful as the fish in the sea.

Fish head or sheep's head: These should be placed on the table and not eaten! It is again symbolic that on Rosh Hashanah we should be seen as the "head" and not the "tail" among nations. The sheep's head is also a reminder of the story of the binding of Isaac, in which Isaac's father, Abraham, was instructed to offer a ram in place of his son.

Denise Phillips's book New Flavours of the Jewish Table, is published by Ebury Press at £12

Last updated: 9:53am, September 10 2008