Have you ever wondered why green zucchini is in season during the autumn and winter months? Why watermelon and cantaloupe appear only in the summer? Why you can't find pomegranates in the spring but you can in autumn? Have you ever wondered — as we approach Rosh Hashanah — why we make the traditional New Year's blessing for a new fruit on an apple as opposed to a pear or a peach?
First some background: Diet in Jewish thought has purposes far surpassing conventional hygienic or nutritional goals, such as spiritual health, moral sensitivity and sanctification. In his commentary on the weekly portion of Shemini, the great Jewish philosopher Abarbanel said, "The Law of God [concerning diet] did not come to heal bodies and seek their material welfare but to seek the health of the soul and cure its illnesses." Regarding moral sensitivity, Rabbi Jacob Cohn in "The Royal Table" said in reference to ritual slaughter: "The Jewish law is at great pains to minimize the pain of any living thing, even when it is being deprived of its life."
Sanctification (achieving holiness) through the performance of ordinary daily activities is at the heart of Torah laws, and dietary laws make up a great deal of these. The more a Jew's diet conforms to Torah dietary laws, the stronger his soul becomes. Thus, the more spiritual health a soul attains, the closer to God it becomes. "Man must be very careful in his choice of food," says Rabbi Cohn. "He must choose only that which is conducive to the soul's elevation." This idea of elevating the soul through diet is taken further by the Lurianic kabbalists who say that during the eating process, man gathers together the scattered particles of divinity which are hidden in the inanimate, the vegetative and the animal life and unites these sparks with his own soul. As the ultimate goal of existence is to return all of Creation's "particles" to God, the Jew helps God by eating up these "lost" particles of divinity.
"We are what we eat," therefore, is no mere cliche in Jewish thought.
Nowhere in the Jewish calendar is the connection between food and the soul more apparent than on Rosh Hashanah.
New Year's characteristics of God's kingship, Judgment Day and Repentance are highlighted by a number of special blessings during the first evening meal of Rosh Hashanah (on the second night as well in Sephardi custom). First, a morsel of challah is dipped in honey as we ask God to renew for us a good and sweet year. Rosh Hashanah challah are very unique. They are round, not the usual rectangular or oblong-shaped shaped loaves. The rounds symbolize the cyclical nature of life and the seasons, as well as the penitential idea that however far we stray from God, He is always just a prayer away.
Honey is one of the seven species of the Land of Israel, and the word dvash (honey) appears in Scriptures, in reference to "a land flowing with milk and honey," 15 times. The word "honey" is used to describe the Torah: "More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb." (Psalms 19:11). One of the characteristics of honey is its thickness; it does not 'run.' Fingers can get quite sticky from touching it. Thus, eating honey during Rosh Hashanah helps to 'stick' the twin ideas of the Land of Israel and Torah to our consciousness.
The next blessing is for a new fruit dipped in honey, and of all the fruits we always choose apples. The reason for this is the four references to apples as the people of Israel in the Song of Songs, the romantic love poem of God and the People of Israel. "As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons." (Song of Songs 2:3). The apple is the height of fruit creation, the best nature has to offer, and has something for three senses: smell, taste and visual esthetics. In this way it is similar to man, the height of Creation. The similarity to man does not stop with the positive attributes. On the negative-side, apples are thin-skinned and bruise easily. One tiny bump will discolor the inside meat of the apple. Put one "bad apple" in a barrel and the whole barrel becomes rotten. Man is the same: thin-skinned, and his soul is easily bruised. One tiny misdeed will discolor the whole soul. Put one "bad apple" in a community and the whole community becomes suspect. Eating apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the "thin skin" surrounding our souls and the need to keep well away from "bad apples."
Some traditionally eat a pomegranate, another of the seven species, while saying, "May it be thy will that we perform as many good deeds as there are seeds in a pomegranate." The pomegranate reaches the height of its season in late summer, early fall, during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and this is not purely coincidental. A major characteristic of the pomegranate is the difficulty of extracting juice from its seeds. This alludes well to mitzvot, which have to be fulfilled in great number and very diligently in order to be "quenched" of thirst. An appropriate reminder at Rosh Hashanah time!
It is also the custom to eat the head of a sheep or a fish and to say the blessing, "May it be Your wish that we be as a head and not as a tail," alluding to our striving to be leaders in life, as opposed to followers.
While many people eat various vegetables whose names in Aramean contain a symbolic allusion to good (such as "silki," "karti," "ruviyah," "kara" and "tamri") our family has a tradition of eating soup made with onions, carrots, zucchini and potatoes.
Onion, or batzal, which gets its name from the way it peels apart, is characterized by overlapping layers. It is one of the few vegetables which is bitter when raw and sweet after sautéing. Another phenomenon unique to onions is its color transformation from opaque when raw to translucent when sautéed. This of course alludes to Israeli nature: bitter and indifferent when uninvolved, but sweet and "clear" when put under fire.
Carrots allude to the "judgment decree" (gezer meaning both decree and carrot) to be handed down by God on Rosh Hashanah. Sometimes my children like to cut the carrots in rounds to symbolize golden coins.
Green zucchini is a unique vegetable. No matter with what it is sautéed, steamed or boiled, zucchini ends up absorbing the taste of the other foods. Hence, zucchini reminds us of the need to be ourselves and not to "take on" the ways of others.
Potatoes are "apples of the ground" and just like their tree-grown cousins, they are an all-around staple. Potatoes are a natural thickener in soups and absorb excess salt, without affecting its taste. Also, they are adaptable to many different methods of cooking. All of these are admirable qualities in any individual!
For the Rosh Hashanah main course our family has a tradition of eating enchiladas, a Mexican dish made with refried beans wrapped in corn tortillas and covered in hot sauce with a topping of grated cheese. The brightness of the melted cheese on top of the red hot sauce and gold tortillas is a joyous reminder of the sunshine of a new year. Upon biting into an enchilada, however, one is brought up sharply by the delayed "punch" of the hot sauce. This is exactly the theme of Rosh Hashanah: a new year filled with hope and joy coupled with the not-so-sudden realization that the Day of Atonement is just around the corner.
There is a food one should avoid eating during the High Holy Days: nuts. The reason for this is that the gematria of egoz (nut) — 17 — equals that of chet (sin) and sin is what we want to stay away from altogether between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
King Solomon wrote, "To every thing there is a season." This is as true for the animal and vegetable worlds as for the human. The next time you're in a supermarket or at a farmers market, spend some moments contemplating the soul-health characteristics of the foods in season. Who knows, it may become a year-round occupation!