When honey isn’t just honey: the power of symbolic food
Rosh Hashanah is also a time when the food on our table is more than just food, it’s filled with hidden meanings, properties, and names which point to simanim – signs for the year ahead. A source from our written tradition in Nechemiah describes how after the Jewish people returned to the land of Israel from the Babylonian exile, they were told to consume “fatty meats and sweet drinks” on Rosh Hashanah. This is the origin of the idea of eating symbolic foods on Rosh Hashanah.
The Talmudic sage Abaye elaborated on a list of five foods we are required to see or hold on Rosh Hashanah which reflect, in name or taste, our aspirations for the year ahead. These foods are squash, black-eyed peas, leeks, beet greens, and dates. Leor Jacobi explains that according to Rashi, these foods were chosen for their symbolic qualities such as taste (sweetness) or because they grow fast, while Rav Hai Gaon said it wasn’t the qualities of the food that made them essential table fare, but rather their names which, through a series of puns, offer hopeful portents for the year to come. Symbolic or semantic, there’s no doubt that when it comes to Rosh Hashanah, the food on our table is somehow “more than itself”, acquiring meanings and somehow suggesting that on Rosh Hashanah at least, “you are what you eat”.
We open the meal with challah and apple dipped in honey. In some Sephardic homes, the apples are dipped in water with lemon juice and orange blossom water to prevent browning, and are then dipped in sugar. In many homes, these sweet themes flow through the entire meal. As Claudia Roden, the author of The Book of Jewish Food elaborates, often the meat, chicken, and vegetable dishes are sweetened – sweet potatoes replace regular potatoes, onions are served caramelised, and meat is cooked with sugar and cinnamon. If sweetness is prevalent, so are circles. Our plaited challahs become circular rounds, soup is served with mandelach or kreplach, and in many homes, peas, chickpeas, and meatballs add to the circle theme. Roden explains that roundness evokes themes of fullness and plumpness, as we hope for a year that is abundant and round, like a well-sated tummy. In some homes, there is an avoidance of anything sharp or bitter – no vinegar, lemon or tamarind. Dark foods are also eschewed such as eggplant, even chocolate!
As powerful as these traditions are, did our ancestors really believe these foods to be portents for the year ahead? Do we really believe that eating sweetness and avoiding bitterness will influence G‑d’s decree? Or do we eat these foods as a kind of playful tradition, without really taking the notion of edible influence to heart? Jacobi says that our rabbis debated vigorously whether these eating practices are nachash, a type of superstitious magic to be avoided, or simply siman tov, an indication for good.
The Provencal sage, Rav Yaakov ben Rav Abba Mari Anatoli, sheds some light. He says these foods are not actual portents. Rather, by considering symbolic foods and then reciting a short prayer or blessing, G-d is brought into our awareness. Indeed, this seems to be the practice today. The food is arranged on the table, and when we eat it and invoke the symbolism, we often make a bracha or a yehi ratzon. This notion of connecting food to G-dliness moves us away from thinking about these foods as superstitious portents, and brings us to something profound, perhaps connecting us to the essence of Rosh Hashanah as an affirmation of human life on this planet.
Food is the essence of our physical space on earth. In Jewish terms, food and the act of eating differentiates humans from angels. Food reminds humans of our earthward-bound nature, as we rely on this source of energy for our survival. What does it mean, then, that on Rosh Hashanah we imbue food with a symbolic quality connected to, yet beyond its physical properties? The space where the physical and spiritual intersect is the space of the symbol, where a physical image points to something else, an idea, a concept more ephemeral.
In our busy lives, food can be reduced to pure physicality. We can end up eating on the run, mindlessly taking in food in a concrete and disconnected kind of way. But on Rosh Hashanah, we are invited to eat in a way that attempts to see something in food beyond the physical, a symbolic connection which brings together physical and spiritual properties. From food to our wider lives. As we eat the apple and honey which is symbolic of the deeper sweetness we crave in our lives, we are invited to contemplate the very relationship between our physical and spiritual worlds. Life on planet earth cannot be reduced to a purely physical existence, nor are we angels who can simply transcend this physical plane.
When physical drudgery is uplifted to a higher purpose, we are in the realm of meaning making and symbolic awareness. The space of the symbol allows us to be physical and transcendent simultaneously. The use of symbols is found in all good art, poetry, music, and of course in tefilah (prayer). And on Rosh Hashanah, we find symbols in the meal itself. When we make this connection between food, existence, and the symbolic life, our entire world is transformed and created anew, and so are we. Hayom harat olam, today is the birthday of the world.
- Adina Roth runs B’tocham Education in Johannesburg, teaching courses to B’neimitzvah and tanach and midrash to adults. She is also a Melton educator and a clinical psychologist in private practice. She is currently Limmud SA national chair.