Up until a few years ago, it would have been close to completely unlikely to find any Jewish holiday-themed foods in the grocery store where we shop (religiously) here in Atlanta every weekend. Unlike the rows and rows of Christmas and Easter goods that materialize months ahead of time. The candy canes, the foil-wrapped bells, the hot-cross buns, the hams.
So it should have been an occasion for interfaith gratitude that I came across an end-of-aisle Jewish New Year display the other day across from the sushi counter: a couple of shelves’ worth.
Only the featured products were a mismatch: boxes of matzo ball soup mix, plain and egg and onion matzo crackers, and jars of gefilte fish; sad-looking, leftover Passover merchandise it looked like to me. I did ask to speak to the manager, and in my most sincere (merely intending to educate) neighboring faiths kind of tone, I informed him that these items had nothing to do with Rosh Hashanah at all. It was, I pointed out, the same as stocking jelly beans and chocolate Cadbury Easter eggs as a run up to December 25th (which, as a matter of fact, I did see at a check-out counter at Walgreens last year).
He responded, equally sincerely, that it was his not intention to be disrespectful of the Jewish faith. He was only putting out what he had been instructed to by headquarters, the same foods that had been featured in the regional advertising circular brightly wishing their Jewish neighbors a good New Year. And thanked me for letting him know.
He moved on and we moved on, without having the next part of the conversation. That is: what are the foods associated with the High Holy Days (not the fasting, but the eating part)?
As Rabbi Arthur Waskow tells us, since at least as long ago as the Jewish people ate matzoh in their headlong exodus from Egypt — which even predated Kosher food — they believed that how we eat has much to do with what we become. Food is religious/religion for us, and we’re not just talking about lox schmear and kreplach. We’re not just talking about the familiar parsley and horseradish and hard boiled eggs on the Seder plate.
Not only at Passover, but at every festival, Jews have assigned special foods as a customary part of the celebration. We bless and we eat, with great intention. We carry these traditions around food with us throughout the seasons of our joy that fit together in a coherent whole, year in and year out.
On Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi points out, the main qualities of the special foods are sweetness (for a sweet year), roundness (for the cycle of the year), and abundance (for fruitfulness and prosperity).
If our supermarket manager had wanted to be most thoroughly in sync with Jewish Talmudic teachings, Orthodox rabbis would have instructed him to stack up rows of inedible gourds; fenugreek, a plant used to make herbal medicine and a kind of Middle Eastern curry; leeks; beets; and dates. None of these likely to fly off the shelf to fill a modern grocery cart.
However, he might have better luck (and profits) featuring the more traditional, at least more common, jars of honey, often referred to in the Bible as the sweetener of choice.
Though some historians believe it was actually a kind of fruit paste, since real honey was hard to come by. Honey, in the Land of Milk and Honey that was ancient Israel, represented and still represents a sweet life — good living and wealth.
Our now more enlightened grocer would have worked with the bakery department to come up with a competitive Challah, a loaf of braided egg bread that is traditionally served on the Sabbath or Shabbat, and during Rosh Hashanah shaped into spirals or rounds symbolizing the continuity of Creation. Sometimes raisins or honey are added this time of year to make the bread extra sweet, sweeter still when dipped in the honey after the evening service. And honey cakes made with autumnal spices (cloves, cinnamon, and allspice) to seasonally express more wishes for an even sweeter New Year.
There must, of course, be apples on those market shelves: bags of them, red and shiny, for dipping in the honey as we ask again that we may be renewed for a good and sweet new year. Why apples? Because the smell of an apple field, we are taught, is also the smell of the Garden of Eden, a place of reconnection and return.
Ironically, each year we ritually eat the same forbidden fruit that in the Book of Genesis had us tossed out to begin with, when we ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, rather than leave all choices and actions to God.
Apple slices dipped in honey, and of course Challah, are the most familiar foods on this most precious Jewish holiday. But there are others of equally powerful metaphor.
On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, we eat a “new fruit,” meaning a fruit that has recently come into season but that we have not yet had the opportunity to eat. A pomegranate is often used, because, just as it contains 613 seeds, there are, in Jewish Orthodoxy, 613 mitzvot or commandments. Blessing and eating this fruit, we ask that our good deeds in the coming year be as plentiful as the seeds of the pomegranate.
And last, and most unlikely, our seasonal aisle display would feature a fish head, an ancient symbol of fertility and abundance, as well as reflecting the literal translation of Rosh Hashanah in Hebrew, which is “head of the year.”
Which brings us back to that grocery store shelf full of Passover goods, placed there in recognition of the Jewish New Year. Truth is, Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes, there are two answers — as is often the case with Jewish questions — to when does the year begin?
In a way, our store manager was correct. He just got his New Years switched around.
One beginning is indeed Rosh Hashanah, “the head of the year,” but this festival/holiday does not occur in what the Bible calls the first month. That month is Nisan, the month of Spring, the month of Pesach, or Passover. That is the month of which, in the Bible story, God spoke to Moses and Aaron: “This month for you shall be the first of the months of the year.”
For the ancient Jewish people, this marked the beginning of the cycle of their particular tribal year. And yet, the rabbi reminds us that for more than 2,000 years, the Jewish people have observed the new year a full half a year after the month of Nisan.
Rosh Hashanah is celebrated in the month of Tishri, the seventh month, echoing the seventh day, the Shabbos of rest and contemplation. The seventh month comes in the early fall, when the heat and hot winds have died down, and we can collectively breathe again.
Rosh Hashanah is not, then, the literal start of a calendar year, but instead, according to tradition, it is the anniversary of the creation of Adam, the birthday of the whole human race. It is a feast of beginnings. It is a recognition and celebration of our interconnected humanity: its universal flaws, its universal possibilities.
A blogger recently posted his observation that when on Rosh Hashanah we mark the birthday of the world (or more precisely, the presence of humans in this world) we all can celebrate the ideas fundamental to this holiday’s observance. He noted that when we say “shanah tovah” to one another, we are wishing four things: to enjoy rest, to have a new year of learning, to change, and to know peace.
We may all bless and eat from round loaves of Challah and know the continuity of creation.
We may all bless and eat apple slices dipped in honey, and know that we can choose between good and evil and seek sweetness in our lives.
We may all bless and eat new fruit, reminding us to appreciate being alive to enjoy them, and ask that our good deeds be as plentiful as the seeds.
May we all bless and eat with great intention. On this holy day and always.