September 18, 2009
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins tonight at sundown. It’s traditional to dip apples in honey to symbolize the hope for a sweet year ahead, a practice of which I was aware but never knew the origins. To find out, I consulted Jeffrey M. Cohen’s 1,001 Questions and Answers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (thank you, Google Books), where I also found answers to questions I didn’t even know I had.
According to Cohen, the reason honey is used (and not some other sweet substance) is its association with the manna—described in the Torah as being “like honey wafers”—provided by God during the 40 years that the Israelites wandered the desert. It is supposed to remind Jews that any sustenance or material benefits that come their way are “solely dependent upon God’s grace and favor,” he writes.
Another interpretation Cohen relates is that it symbolizes the dual role of bees—feared for their sting, but prized for the sweetness they provide—reminiscent of the image of a stern but merciful creator.
One seemingly obvious reason he doesn’t mention is that honey was the sweetener of choice in biblical times; neither sugar nor maple syrup were known to the ancient Israelites. Honey, on the other hand, is at least as old as written history; it was mentioned in Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform writings, and other ancient texts going back 4,000 years.
Aside from apples and honey, other lesser-known Rosh Hashanah traditions revolve around foods that imply good omens. On the second night of celebration, Jews eat a “new fruit” that hasn’t been eaten yet in the season. Pomegranates are a popular option, in part because they (at least symbolically) contain 613 seeds, indicating the desire to fulfill the 613 mitzvot (commandments, or good deeds) mentioned in the Torah. Fenugreek is also recommended, Cohen writes, because its Hebrew name, rubya, means increase. Similarly, carrots are chosen because their Yiddish name is mehren, or many.
Nuts are prohibited at Rosh Hashanah, Cohen explains, for reasons that seem a little murky. He cites two main reasons. The first has to do with the numerical value assigned Hebrew letters and words; in the complicated numerology of Judaism the word for nut is equivalent to the word for sin. Also, he writes, nuts were believed to increase saliva, interfering with the recitation of prayers. These reasons, he admits, seem a little flimsy—which he attributes to latter-day rabbinic authorities trying to rationalize a tradition for which they had no solid explanation.
The original reason, he continues, was investigated by Chaim Leshem, who determined that nuts were an ancient symbol of destruction because their trees and sap overshadow and destroy other nearby trees.
(But hey! Wait a minute! At my Rosh Hashanah meal every year we have teiglach — the honey-laden boiled dough delicacy that comes riddled with nuts. I wonder if its an Ashkenazic/Sephardic difference? — Brian, associate web editor)
Challah, or egg bread, is eaten all year, but at Rosh Hashanah the loaf is round instead of braided, to symbolize the cycle of the new year and of our lives.
And no Rosh Hashanah meal is complete without some honey cake (smitten kitchen has a yummy-sounding recipe that looks moister than usual), which is generally made with coffee. I couldn’t find the reason for the coffee, even in the book of 1,001 questions and answers. Can anyone out there offer an explanation?
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