Judaism is a religion of food. Cheesecake on Shavuot, matzah on Pesach, and oily treats on Chanukah each symbolize some aspect of the festival on which they are consumed. Rosh Hashanah is no exception, and eating foods to symbolize hopes for the upcoming year is first recorded in one of the final chapters of Tanach: “Go your way, eat fatty foods, and drink sweet drinks, and send food portions to him who has nothing prepared . . .” (Nechemia 8:10).
And so the tradition of eating and drinking sweet delicacies began. The connection between the foods served and hopes for the coming year evolved throughout Talmudic times to include an array of foods and drinks chosen for their appearance and the sound of their name. The sages worried that with these simanim (symbols) one would become preoccupied with satisfying one’s appetite and the symbolism would be forgotten; thus passages to be recited prior to eating the various dishes were instituted. Customs vary according to the foods and passages to be read prior to eating them, but it is possible to produce the perfect Rosh Hashanah meal centered on the symbolic foods complemented by the finest of seasonal wines.
“May our merits increase as the seeds of a pomegranate”
A perfect starter including two of the prescribed simanim is a beetroot-and-pomegranate salad. Pomegranates are eaten for their many seeds, which are said to be equivalent to one’s merits, and beetroot is eaten due to the similarity between selek (beetroot) and silek (remove) so we ask that our enemies be removed.
Beetroot, Pomegranate, and Almond Salad
2 heads of regular lettuce, washed and torn into pieces
7 oz. shredded cooked beetroot
seeds from 1 large pomegranate
2.5 oz. toasted sliced almonds
For dressing (whisk all ingredients together):
2 Tbsp. lime juice
1½ tsp. sugar
¾ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
5 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Mix the lettuce, beetroot, and half of the pomegranate seeds. Toss in the dressing and then sprinkle the remaining pomegranate seeds and toasted almonds over the salad.
Debby Sion, head of the education department at the Golan Heights Winery, recommends that this fresh salad is best enjoyed with a white wine, such as the Yarden Mount Hermon White, with its fruity flavors making a refreshing start to the meal. Being a light wine, it complements this light starter and will not overpower the palate. Another excellent option is the Galil Viognier 2011, which, like the Mount Hermon, has a delicious fruity flavor. The Viognier, though, has a background fragrance of delicate oak, which comes from the French oak barrels in which 40 percent of the wine has been aged to preserve the balance between aged and unaged wine. Both wines should be served cold and fresh.
“May our enemies be decimated”
The Hebrew word for leek is kresha, which sounds like the Hebrew word kares, meaning decimated, and thus the above passage is recited over this versatile food, which makes a tasty substitute for the onion.
One of the most popular simanim is the apple dipped in honey, but historically the origins of dipping a food in honey for a sweet new year appear to have begun with Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg dipping a sheep’s head in honey (13th century) in reference to the ram which was sacrificed in the biblical tale of Isaac. Combining lamb, leek, and honey with apple juice or cider will create a succulent, melt-in-the mouth simanim-inspired dish that is a more attractive centerpiece than the traditional ram’s head.
Rosh Hashanah Lamb
1 leg of lamb (symbolizing the lamb’s head and the binding of Isaac)
17 oz. cider (apple, the traditional symbol of Rosh Hashanah)
2–3 Tbsp. honey (for a sweet new year)
sprig of rosemary
large leek (for victory over enemies)
1–2 large carrots (for good decrees)
Preheat oven to 375ºF. Place the leg of lamb in a large baking dish lined with foil. Spread the honey evenly over the whole of the lamb and then place the rosemary in small slits that you have scored in the meat. Fill the dish with the chopped parsnips, carrots, and leek, pour the cider over it, and then cover with foil. Roast for 1.5 hours, basting occasionally with the juices in the pan, and then cook for a final 20–25 minutes uncovered.
Owing to the powerful flavors of the lamb, this dish needs an equally powerful red wine to accompany it. The 2009 Yarden Merlot steps up to the challenge successfully and is a really special wine with deep, rich and complex flavors, hints of both red and black berries, and a spicy, earthy flavor. While the wine is rather powerful, it will not overpower the lamb, and its herbal tones will complement the dish’s flavors very well. It should be opened before the guests come to the table, and by the time the lamb is served the wine will almost sing to you.
“And drink sweet drinks”
Having feasted on lamb, thus fulfilling half of Nehemiah’s decree, all that is left is to end the meal with a sweet drink. There are many fine dessert wines, which, rather than the traditional syrupy kiddush wine, are so good that they can make a dessert on their own. One such wine is the Yarden Muscat, which is a dessert wine fortified with oak-aged brandy. The floral and fruity notes combined with the sweet, refreshing nature of the drink mean that it can be drunk alone or with a thick slice of apple-and-honey pie.
Simanim can be added throughout the meal, and lists of the passages to be recited can be found in prayer books. There is no strict law on what can or cannot be included, and one can always throw in some modern twists to provide a talking point at the meal, such as lettuce, raisin, and celery salad to “let us have a raise in salary,” and peas as we pray for a “peas-ful” year!
Chag sameach and simanim tovim!