At sundown Wednesday, Jews around the world begin the celebration of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
“It’s a time of renewal,” said Rabbi Jordan Goldson, of Congregation B’nai Israel in Baton Rouge. “The idea is that we have the opportunity to look forward to a new, fresh year — one filled with blessing, happiness and prosperity.”
Apples, honey, honey cakes — dishes with a little sweetness — all signify the centuries-old Rosh Hashana blessing for a sweet new year.
“When I think of Rosh Hashana, I think of honey cake, sweet kugel and taiglach, little honey balls that are stacked up,” Goldson said.
One of the important foods is challah (bread) made into a round shape rather than the usual braid eaten on the Sabbath. The round shape signifies the desire for continuity in life. Round seasonal fruits, like apples and pomegranates, are traditionally eaten because they are biblical fruits mentioned in the Torah.
Claudia Roden in “The Book of Jewish Food,” her award-winning cookbook and Jewish culinary history, describes the new year as a time for sweet things.
“In some countries, even meat, chicken and vegetable dishes are sweet. Potatoes are replaced by sweet potatoes, onions are caramelized and meats are cooked with quince, prunes, dates and raisins, and sometimes also with sugar or honey,” she wrote.
Even though Rosh Hashana is a festive holiday, it also has a very serious side.
“There is the idea that we have become distant, distracted from our Beloved, our God,” Goldson said. “At this time, we begin to refocus to return to the beautiful relationship we have with our Beloved. It is a time of introspection, to look at who we are.”
All Jewish holidays begin at sundown. Reform Jews generally start the celebration of the new year with a family dinner and attend services later in the evening.
Orthodox Jews attend services at sundown and return home for their family dinner.
In Southern families, the main course is traditionally either brisket or chicken, often served with potatoes and a fall vegetable.
The meal can be elaborate and generally includes wine and appetizers like chopped liver (liver pâté) and apples and honey.
If the eve of Rosh Hashana falls on the Sabbath, the Sabbath candles are lit and the blessing said.
Dessert is one of the most important parts of the meal with an emphasis on the sweetness.
In both Orthodox and Reform congregations, families attend services the following morning and have a second family dinner in the early afternoon.
Though the foods of Rosh Hashana are important, what’s most significant about the holiday is the relationships with past generations and the prayerful tradition.
“One thing we do as a community is to come together to pray as a communal body that our lives will be filled with blessing and God will grant us a good year ahead,” Goldson said.
For thousands of years, the shofar, or ram’s horn, has been the way to call the community together.
“Still today, people come just to hear the shofar blown during the morning service,” the rabbi said. “We love that experience. It unlocks something in you. It is also a call to conscience. The blast jars you to understand that I really need to do some work on myself.”