There are few Jewish holidays, apart from Passover, which are more associated with food as symbolism than Rosh Hashana. As we recall from the Passover seder, food is meant to represent our affliction in Egypt, the Temple sacrifices and great sages such as Hillel. Rosh Hashana food is only concerned with producing good feelings and optimism; that the New Year should be sweet (and not bittersweet) and that we should prosper and benefit from Hashem’s blessings.
Rosh Hashana is known for its sweet foods. At the beginning of the meal, we dip a slice of apple in honey to represent our prayers for a sweet year. It is also customary to eat a new fruit so we can make a special Shechyanu blessing, which is a blessing we make when we partake of special foods, wear new clothes and reach a unique occasion. It is customary to eat pomegranate, since every Jew is said to be filled with good deeds as the pomegranate is bursting with seeds. In fact, it is in Israel that I sense that Rosh Hashana is coming beginning in Elul when the first pomegranates appear on the trees.
Other food customs include eating carrots, which in Yiddish are related to the word “meren” meaning “increase” and in Hebrew are related to the word “gezera” or decree. The idea behind eating carrots is that our blessings should increase and we should benefit from positive decrees. We also eat the head of a fish (or a ram, for the more adventurous). One isn’t required to eat an entire head of fish, but only a small taste is sufficient. When we eat the fish we say, “May we be at the head (leading) and not at the tail.” (Needless to say, you probably won’t be finding fish tails on the table on Rosh Hashana.) Some people eat elaborate fish dishes so they may become as fertile as fish.
Rosh Hashana is characterized by its sweet foods, and many avoid vinegar and sour seasonings and flavors. Those who like pickles usually eat sweet gerkins rather than their usual kosher dills. Also, many people avoid eating nuts, since they tend to produce phlegm which can disturb prayers, but the kabbalistic reason is that the word “nut” in Hebrew (egoz) has the same numerical value as “sin” (chet). However, most food customs on Rosh Hashana are focused on the positive and the hope for blessing.
May you all have a Good and Sweet New Year!