What Should We Eat on The World's Birthday? A Rosh Hashanah Menu

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the birthday of the world (it says so right here in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy). You might celebrate your birthday with cake, but for thousands of years, the Jewish community has celebrated the birth of the world with a variety of symbolic foods. On your birthday, you might make a wish and blow out the candles; on Rosh Hashanah, we use these symbolic foods to express our wishes for the year to come.

But why eat our wishes? And how do we know what to eat?

Here's where it all began...

Source #1: It's a Sign!

The first mention of eating meaning-filled foods on Rosh Hashanah comes from a Talmudic rabbi living in Babylonia in the 4th century.

אמר רב אמי האי מאן דבעי לידע אי משכא שתא אי לא מייתי שרגא בהלין עשרה יומין דבין ריש שתא ליומא דכיפורי וניתלי בביתא דלא נשיב זיקא אי משיך נהוריה נידע דמסיק שתיה ומאן דבעי נעביד עיסקי ובעי דנידע אי מצלח עיסקי אי לא נירבי תרנגולא אי שמין ושפר נידע דמצלח...אמר אביי השתא דאמרת סימנא מילתא היא יהא רגיל איניש למיכל ריש שתא קרא ורוביא כרתי סילקא ותמרי

Rav Ami says: One who desires to know if he will live through this current year or not should bring a lit candle during those ten days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur and hang it in a house through which wind does not blow, and he should watch it carefully: If its light continues he shall know that he will live out his year.

And one who desires to conduct business and wants to know if his business will succeed or not should raise a rooster. If the rooster gets fat and beautiful he shall know that the venture will succeed... Abaye said: Now that you have said that a sign is a substantial matter, a person should be accustomed to eat, at the start of the year, gourd, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates.

1) What is the significance of the foods that Abaye suggests eating? Why do you think these foods were chosen?

(Sefaria fun: Jastrow tells us that the word for "fenugreek" might actually mean "flax seed" - just in case that changes your answer)

2) How is this similar to or different from other holidays or occasions (Jewish or not) when we eat symbolic foods?

Source #2: But What About the Apples?

The apples come later! Here's the Tur, a medieval law code by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher.

ומזה רבו המנהגים כ"מ ומקום לפי מנהגו כמו באשכנז שרגילין לאכול בתחלת הסעודה תפוח מתוק בדבש לומר תתחדש עלינו שנה מתוקה ובפרובינצ"א נוהגין להביא על השלחן כל מיני חידוש ואוכלין ראש כבש והריאה לומר נהיה לראש ולא לזנב והריאה לפי שהיא קלה והר"מ מרוטנבורג היה רגיל לאכול ראש איל זכר לאילו של יצחק:

And from this (what Abaye said) grew the [various] customs, every place according to its custom; as in Germany, where they are accustomed to eating sweet apple with honey at the beginning of the meal, to say, "Let this new year be sweet for us." And in Provence they are accustomed to bring all types of novelties [to the meal] and to eat a sheep's head and lung, to say, "Let us be at the head and not at the tail;" and the lung because it is light. And our teacher, Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg was accustomed to eat the head of a ram to commemorate the ram of Yitzchak.

1) According to the Tur, why do apples get added to the list of Rosh Hashanah foods?

2) What else does he add to the list, and why?

(Sefaria fun: Try searching apple or תפוח on Sefaria. Filter so you see only Tanakh results. What do you notice about the role that apples play in the Bible? Based on these sources, what is the significance of apples?)

Source #3: Bring on the Puns

To understand how we got to where we are today (and the full potential of where we might take this whole eating significant foods thing), check out this source from a 19th century Iraqi rabbi named Yosef Hayyim:

יהיה רגיל לאכול בראש השנה בשתי הלילות על שלחנו בסדר זה, תחלה תמרים ויברך 'בורא פרי העץ' ויאכל תמרה אחת, ואח"כ יאמר 'יהי רצון שיתמו אויבנו' וכו', ויאכל תמרה השניה, ויכוין בבקשה זו על אויבים התחתונים, ואח"כ יאכל רובי"א והוא מה שקורין בלשון ערבי לובי"א ויאמר 'יהי רצון שירבו זכיותנו', ולפי מה שכתב הגאון מגן אברהם ז"ל שיבקש גם לפי המשמעות הנראה מלשון המדינה, על כן אנחנו אנשי בגדא"ד שקורין אותה לובי"א צריך לומר 'שירבו זכיותו ותלבבנו'...

On Rosh Hashanah, one should eat in the following order (seder) on both nights: First, dates. One should recite the blessing of "creator of the fruit of the tree," and eat one date. After that, one should say: May it be your will that our enemies be destroyed (Yitamu = destroyed, sounds like tamar = date). The one should eat the second date, and have in mind "the enemies of the lower realms." After that, a person should eat fenugreek (rubya), which we call "luvya" in Arabic, and says "may it be Your will that our merits increase (yirbu)." But as Magen Avraham (17th century legal scholar) says, one should make requests in the language that makes sense wherever you are, and so we in Baghdad who call it "luvya" have to say, "that our merits may increase and and become beloved (tilvaveynu)....

1) How does this source describe the Rosh Hashanah meal? What is the focus?

2) Why does it matter what the people in Baghdad call fenugreek? What is his point?

(Sefaria fun: The meal's not over yet...try clicking into the source and reading the continuation - Hebrew only for now, but maybe one of us will translate it!)

Source #4: What Would You Add?

Suggest a food and a corresponding pun (in the language of your choice - see the video below - especially the last 30 seconds - for some ideas!), or pick a food that evokes a wish for the coming year and explain the significance. Any user logged in to Sefaria can add to this sheet!

To view the subtitles in English, click on the gear (settings) and select "English".

1) What will you do at this time of year to get this year off to a good start?

(Sefaria fun: The first text on this sheet is an excerpt from a larger discussion of signs and omens. Click here to see where this source goes next...)

2) Share your ideas for Rosh Hashanah foods below!