Be the Head not the Tail: Symbolism and the Food of Rosh Hashanah

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The first time I celebrated Rosh Hashanah in Israel I received the shock of my life. I was with my sister in the grocery store shopping for the holiday and right before us was the head of a sheep: teeth, eyes and all…I’m not going to lie: I might have become a squeamish girl for a few seconds, then I was intrigued.

“They use this?” I asked my sister.

“Wild, isn’t it?” she said.

I knew that Jews in the United States more commonly use a fish head as a siman or symbolic food, as a possible allusion to the Feast of the Leviathan, rather than using a sheep’s head. The sheep’s head symbolizes the verse in Hebrew  “And you shall be the Head not the Tail.” It is one thing to know it and another entirely to come face to face with the head, teeth, eyes, and all.  Eating a sheep’s head on Rosh Hashanah is also linked to the Akadah, which we also commemorate by the reading in the synagogue, because it is said to have occurred on this holiday. It is to remind us of the ram that was used in place of Isaac by Avraham who taught ethical monotheism.

“Let’s get one!” She said “You can cook it, right?”

Was she joking? Nope!

Rimon 9-9-11
Picture by Natasha Hollander

Food has this special way of bringing together different people and with Jews it’s no different. I have to admit that food has always fascinated and excited me, especially food regarding holidays (Hagim) – what we eat and why we eat it. Most people are aware of the five symbolic foods that we are encouraged to eat on the night of Rosh Hashanah, but those are not the only ones that are eaten…. Many Ashkenazim consume apples on this holiday but are unaware of why that is. They are said to be compared to the divine presence of G-d in the Zohar, and in the French tradition were said to be a symbol of all things new and bright and would bring goodness to all of Israel. This custom was adopted by most Ashkenazim and is still seen in use today: fruits and vegetables that have an abundance of seeds, such as squash, grapes, figs, pomegranates, dates, melons, and pumpkins might be eaten to symbolize the verse “be fruitful and multiply.”

Dates Israel 9-9-11
Picture by Natasha Hollander

Many Sephardim eat the quince fruit on this holiday, albeit in different ways: Persians put it in a stew with lamb and onions, Greeks serve it with rosewater at the beginning of the meal, and Moroccans combine it with carrots and prunes to make a syrup, or just poach them. Indian Jews (whom I find the most interesting) do something vastly different than everyone, they eat a coconut milk halva with nuts and raisins, fulfilling the “sweet” part in “a sweet new year.”

She wasn’t joking and I did cook it, rather well I might add, after researching it on YouTube: “How to Roast a Sheep’s Head” (one of my weirder search parameters no doubt). Surprise, it was a hit! That Rosh Hashanah eating a sheep’s head was probably one of the most eventful ones I have ever had.

Watermelon Israel 9-9-11
Picture by Natasha Hollander

If you are looking for more information on these and other Judaica topics, please see the Touro College LibGuides.

Reference:

Marks, G. (2010). Encyclopedia of Jewish food (pp. 19-20, 492-493, 506-508). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Contributed by Natasha Hollander, Librarian, Lander College for Women

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