The Jerusalem Post

Rosh Hashanah: Food traditions of the Jewish High Holy Days

 Children picking pomegranates in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Children picking pomegranates in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

As you plan your Rosh Hashanah meals, consider the traditions of your family, and new ones as well.

On Rosh Hashanah, Jews are supposed to feast. Why? This is said to come from the passage in the book of Nehemiah (8:10): “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord.”


The most common custom for Ashkenazi Jews for Rosh Hashanah is the making of sweet challah, primarily round in shape, to symbolize a long life or the unbroken circle of the full New Year to come. Some people place a ladder made of dough on top so our prayers may ascend to heaven, or because on Rosh Hashanah, it is decided “who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low.” Some place a bird made of dough on top, derived from the phrase in Isaiah: “as birds hovering so will the Lord of Hosts protect Jerusalem.”

According to John Cooper in Eat and Be Satisfied, A Social History of Jewish Food, the tradition of baking fresh loaves of bread on a Friday morning among disparate Jewish communities…was a tradition that had its roots in the Talmudic era; strangely enough, this custom was ignored by medieval rabbinic commentators and was revived by the Austrian author of Leket Yosher (a student of 15th-century Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin) and by Rabbi Moses Isserles (the 16th-century Polish scholar of Halacha) at the end of the Middle Ages.

According to Jewish tradition, the three Sabbath meals (Friday night, Saturday lunch, and Saturday late afternoon) and two holiday meals (one at night, and lunch the following day) each begins with two complete loaves of bread. This “double loaf” (in Hebrew lechem mishneh) commemorates the manna that fell from the heavens when the Israelites wandered in the desert after the Exodus. The manna did not fall on Sabbath or holidays; instead, a double portion would fall the day before the holiday or Shabbat.



On the second evening of Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to eat a new fruit not yet eaten in the season and say Shehecheyanu, the prayer of thanksgiving for things which are enjoyed for the first time.

 Israel Roling, the owner of Roling’s Bakery, stands between hundreds of loaves of ‘challah’ prepared for Rosh Hashanah in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. (credit: RACHEL WISNIEWSKI/REUTERS)
Israel Roling, the owner of Roling’s Bakery, stands between hundreds of loaves of ‘challah’ prepared for Rosh Hashanah in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. (credit: RACHEL WISNIEWSKI/REUTERS)

It is said that in Europe, this fruit was often grapes. In Israel today, it is often the pomegranate, which is eaten to remind us that God should multiply our credit of good deeds like the seeds of the fruit. For many Jews, pomegranates are traditional for Rosh Hashanah. Some believe that the leathery-skinned crimson fruit may have really been the tapuach, apple, of the Garden of Eden.

The word “pomegranate” means “grained apple.” In Hebrew, it is called rimon (also the word for a hand grenade!). In fact, the English term “hand grenade” is said to come from this word. The city of Granada in Spain is named for the fruit, and the red gemstone garnet is named for its color. The juice of the pomegranate can be made into the concentrated syrup grenadine.

Some say that every pomegranate contains 613 seeds for the 613 mitzvot, or good deeds, we should observe. Count them and see if it’s true!


The first course of the Rosh Hashanah holiday meal is often fish. Fish is symbolic of fruitfulness – “may we be fruitful and multiply like fish.” Fish is also a symbol of immortality, a good theme for the New Year. Another reason for serving fish might be that the numerical value of the letters of the Hebrew word for fish, dag, adds up to seven, and Rosh Hashanah begins on the seventh month of the year.



Tzimmes is a stew with or without meat, usually made with prunes and carrots. It is a common dish among Ashkenazi Jews, particularly those from Eastern Europe and Poland, and its origins date back to medieval times. It became associated with Rosh Hashanah because the Yiddish word for carrot is mehren, which is similar to mehrn, which means “to increase.” The idea was to increase one’s merits at this time of year.

Tzimmes also came into the vernacular as meaning to make a fuss or big deal: He’s making such a tzimmes out of everything.

Lekach and other sweets

Among Ashkenazim, sweet desserts for Rosh Hashanah are customary, particularly lekach, or honey cake; and teiglach, which hard, doughy, honey and nut cookies. Some say the origin of eating sweets on Rosh Hashanah comes from the passage in the book of Hosea (3: 1): “love cakes of raisins.” There is also a passage in Samuel II (6: 10) which talks about the multitude of Israel, men and women, “to every one a cake of bread and a cake made in a pan and a sweet cake.” Ezra was the fifth-century BCE religious leader who was commissioned by the Persian king to direct Jewish affairs in Judea; Nehemiah was a political leader and cup bearer of the king in the fifth century BCE. They are credited with telling the returned exiles to eat and drink sweet things.

According  to John Cooper in Eat and Be Satisfied, a Social History of Jewish Food, references to honey cake were made in the 12th century by a French sage, Simcha of Vitry, author of the Machzor Vitry, and by the 12th-century German rabbi Eleazar Judah ben Kalonymos. By the 16th century, lekach was known as a Rosh Hashanah sweet.

Among the Lubavitch Hassidim, it was customary for the rebbe to distribute lekach to his followers; others would request a piece of honey cake from one another on Erev Yom Kippur. This transaction symbolized a substitute for any charity the person might choose to receive, like the traditional kapparot ceremony, where before Yom Kippur, one transfers their sins to a chicken.

Sephardi food customs

Food customs differ among Jews whose ancestors came from Spain and Portugal, the Mediterranean area and those who came from primarily Muslim Arab countries.

Whereas Ashkenazim dip apples in honey, some Sephardim traditionally serve mansanada, a Sephardi apple compote, as an appetizer and dessert, according to Gil Marks in The World of Jewish Desserts.

Just as gefilte fish became a classic dish for the Ashkenazi Jews, baked sheep’s head became a symbol for many Sephardi Jews for Rosh Hashanah, dating back to the Middle Ages.

Some groups merely serve sheep brains or tongue or a fish head, probably for the same reason – for fruitfulness and prosperity and wishes for the New Year for knowledge or leadership.

The Talmud mentions the foods to be eaten on Rosh Hashanah as fenugreek, leeks, beets, dates and gourds, although various Jewish communities interpret these differently. According to Rabbi Robert Sternberg in The Sephardic Kitchen, Sephardi Jews have a special ceremony called the Yehi Ratzon (“May it be Thy will”), where each food is blessed with a blessing beginning with  “Yehi ratzon” (coming from a passage in the Talmud, listing seven foods to eat as a good sign to God that we recognize his sovereignty and hope He will hear our pleas for a good and prosperous year.

As you plan your Rosh Hashanah meals, consider the traditions of your family, and new ones as well. ■

Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, author, compiler/editor of nine kosher cookbooks (working on a 10th) and food writer for North American Jewish publications. She also leads walks through the Jerusalem food market, Mahaneh Yehuda, in English.