Apples and honey are the default foods of Rosh Hashanah, so obvious in their symbolism that they have been reduced to the cloying kindergarten song, “Apples and ho-neeeee, for Rosh Hashanah.” Yep, sweet foods equal a sweet new year. If Hershey’s had been available in ancient times, I guess we’d be eating chocolate kisses every September. (Or maybe making chocolate cake, which I would take over honey cake any day.)
And yet, with the inestimable help of food historian Gil Marks, a little digging finds that the new year is a lot more complex than Red Delicious meets Golden Blossom when it comes to food symbolism. Marks is the author of the mouthwatering, mind-boggling, middle-enlarging Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Wiley, 2010), and he explains that there are five foods the Talmud says should be eaten on Rosh Hashanah — not because of their taste, “but because their names sounded like symbolic things.” And here they are:
• Beet greens or chard. Why? Because the word for beets or chard ( silka ) sounded to the rabbinic brain trust like yistalku , which means “They shall be removed” — “they” presumably being enemies. Though if you feel the way I do, it’s beets that are the enemies. Blecch.
I’m talking about the big, red bulbs often destined to become borscht, or, these days, a hip side dish roasted and drizzled with some interesting oil (that still can’t hide the fact they are beets). But back in the (talmudic) day, beets were cultivated for their greens and not for their red roots, because those were still skinny and had yet to evolve into the beets we know today. That’s why we can actually substitute chard for beets on the holiday: The two leafy things are closely related, and a long time ago they were even more similar — slightly crimson-tinged greens with not a lot going on downstairs.
(Which reminds me of how, years ago, I got a huge box of long red stalks from one of those local-farmers-send-you-way-too-much-kale organizations, and I baked them into a rhubarb pie that made my husband gag. Because, as it turned out, I’d actually baked a chard pie. I had gotten my crimson-tinged vegetables mixed up.) Which brings us to confusion between similar things, which brings us to —
• Fenugreek/black-eyed peas. Fenugreek is a little seed that the Talmud calls rubia, which sounds like yirbu , the word for “to increase” — as in, to increase luck. But it actually increased confusion, Marks says, because the Sephardim got it mixed up with lubia , the word for black-eyed peas. So the Sephardim began eating black-eyed peas rather than fenugreek for good luck in the new year, a tradition they brought with them when some of them up and moved to the colonies. There, non-Jewish Southerners picked up the tradition, too, which is why — Marks swears — to this day, many of them eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.
Which beats chard pie, but not by much.
• Tamri. (the Aramaic word for dates). Dates are eaten because tamri sounded like sheyitamu , the word for “removing our enemies from our midst.” Of course, I think it also makes a lot of symbolic sense to eat a juicy date at the beginning of the new year if you are single.
• Gourds. Yes, gourds. The Aramaic word for them is kra . There’s a funny way that any foods in season at the time of a holiday just happen to end up being so symbolic that we are EXHORTED to eat them, Marks points out. Hmm. For instance, kra , so plentiful in the fall, sounds like yikru , the Hebrew word for “to call out” (as in, “Let’s hope the Lord hears about our good deeds from the year past when they’re called out!”). But it also sounds like the Hebrew word for “tear up,” yikra (as in, “Let’s hope the Lord tears up all the bad deeds we did this past year!”). Either way, it’s the perfect symbol for the holiday.
Which leads me to suspect that if the ancient Hebrew word for gourd sounded like “to find a great deal on a coffee press at Target” we’d come up with a reason that we should be thinking of that particular phrase now, too. Perhaps: “Let’s hope our deeds from the past year are targeted by God to get strained through the divine coffee press, with the grounds of evil trapped below, and our goodness rising like fresh coffee through the little holes.”
• Leeks (or cabbage). The Aramaic word for these foods, karsi , sounds like yikarsu , the word for “cut off” or “destroy,” as in, once again, what we hope will happen to our enemies in the coming year. But the real reason we should eat leeks is the leek patties, which my Sephardic aunts made every Rosh Hashanah — fried, fragrant, better-than-latke treats that were unutterably delicious and unfortunately nicknamed. We called them, I’m sorry to say, “green hamburgers.”
That particular phrase has yet to take on any symbolic importance, so allow me to begin right here: May your year be filled with green — as in cash — even as you yourself become as popular as the hamburger.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of the book “Free-Range Kids” (Wiley, 2010) and the founder of a blog of the same name.