Days of Awe in the Jewish calendar

At a cookbook talk earlier this month, more than one author raved about Claudia Roden’s “The Book of Jewish Food.” Curious, I ordered a copy and have been devouring it since. Published in 1996, the book is the result of over 15 years of traveling and recipe-collecting, and the fingerprints of visits to kitchens tracing Jewish foodways across the globe are apparent in the stories and histories that dot every page. Basically, this book is real good. Here are her opening lines:

Every cuisine tells a story. Jewish food tells the story of an uprooted, migrating people and their vanished worlds. It lives in people’s minds and has been kept alive because of what it evokes and represents.”

Claudia Roden – “The Book of Jewish Food”

Roden conjures up hope and history embodied in a cuisine so diverse it spans Egypt to China, Germany to New York, and countless places in between. 

The days we call holy tell a story as well. We are currently celebrating the Jewish festival of Sukkot and leaving the holiest sequence of days in the Hebrew calendar, which spanned Rosh Hashanah (Sep 29-Oct 1) and Yom Kippur (Oct 8-9). While Rosh Hashanah marks the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – is a more solemn affair, a day to ask forgiveness for transgressions against God and our fellow humans. Food traditions follow suit. Apples and honey are strongly affiliated with Rosh Hashanah, best wishes for a sweet New Year, whereas Yom Kippur is one of two 25-hour full fasts in the Jewish calendar. Following shortly after Yom Kippur, Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, is a particularly visible holiday, celebrated with the construction of huts and booths commemorating the 40 years that the Israelites spent in the wilderness following their flight from slavery in Egypt.

Apples and honey are traditional Rosh Hashanah fare, ushering in the sweetness of a new year… unless you (like me) are allergic to apples, in which case you sample gratuitous amounts of honey at the Jewish Community Project Downtown Rosh Hashanah display at the local Whole Foods to make up for the sadness of no apples.

Margo Hughes-Robinson, rabbinic fellow at the Upper West Side’s B’nai Jeshurun, shared her insights into the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 

How does Rosh Hashanah compare to the secular New Year?

Similar to the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah leads many people to pause and reflect, and try to make changes in their lives. But in contrast to many people’s secular New Year’s resolutions, the spiritual process of teshuva is not a focus on self-improvement, but rather on accountability and repair: of relationships to others, of spiritual discipline, and of our relationship with G-d. 

I’ve heard that Rosh Hashanah is most often associated with sweet foods, especially apples and honey, and with pomegranates. Where did these traditions originate? Are there specific recipes associated with them?

Many people eat sweet food as part of the celebratory Rosh Hashanah meal- honey cake, baklava, apples in honey- as a sign of blessings for a sweet New Year. Some families, especially Jewish communities from the Middle East and North Africa, celebrate with simanim, a ritual where different symbolic foods are eaten to give us the chance to say specific blessings for the first time in the New Year, and that symbolize prosperity. These foods vary depending on people’s cultural backgrounds, but often include pomegranates, black eyed peas, fish heads, gourds, beets, leeks and dates. 

The pomegranate is particularly symbolic in Jewish food cultures. Its many seeds are thought to represent both fertility and the 613 mitzvot. Honey, too, is also strongly associated with the sweetness of Torah and learning- children were traditionally taught to read the Hebrew alphabet for the first time by licking the letters written in honey off of a plate.

I understand that people fast on Yom Kippur to observe the Day of Atonement. How does fasting fit into this and other Jewish holidays? How do Jewish people understanding the role of fasting in observing their faith? What about feasting? Are there specific meals and traditions associated with breaking the fast?

Traditionally, Jewish people observe two “full” 25 hour fasts each year: one on Yom Kippur, and the other in the summer to mark Tisha B’Av, marking the dates of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. There are also several other smaller customary fasts, such as Taanit Esther, and Tzom Gedalia, which mark different events in Jewish history. In Jewish tradition, a full fast requires no eating or drinking (not even water!) for 25 hours. In addition, the Yom Kippur fast is accompanied by an eschewal of wearing leather, fine jewelry, makeup, or ostentatious clothing. Many people wear a kittel, a white robe or white clothing, as a symbol of purity and as a nod towards the plain white shrouds that accompany a Jewish burial. 

While the fast on Tisha B’Av is typically understood as a sign of communal mourning, the Yom Kippur fast is a bit more multivalent. The fast is supposed to push us towards a deeper level of teshuva and repentance. Some also view their fasting with the additional intention to transcend the earthly to approach G-d in repentance, their white clothing and fasting mimicking the angels (who in Jewish tradition do not need food or drink). Fasting for some can also be an act of sacred solidarity, as the section of the book of Isaiah we read on Yom Kippur urges us to use our fasting to consider the welfare of the poor and hungry. Fasts are typically broken with light food- often fish and dairy (but not always). In Ashkenazi communities (Jewish people who trace their heritage to Central and Eastern Europe), bagels, smoked fish, egg dishes and kugel (a baked, pudding-like casserole, often with noodles) are typical fare. In Sephardi and Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities, many opt for fruit, sweet drinks, and nut-flavored sweets, such as date cookies or hariri (almond milk with cardamom), followed by meat dishes. 

Feasting is a major part of traditional Jewish observance. Many holidays and life cycle events are accompanied by a commanded festive meal, called a seudah. A seudah may follow a brit milah, a wedding, the holiday of Purim, a bar or bat mitzvah, or even the completion of a substantial unit of study of sacred texts. Sharing food together is a huge part of Jewish tradition and of family and communal bonding, and is a great way for a wider community to share in the joy of a family experiencing a milestone or a life cycle event! 

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