Think everyone goes in for apples and honey, or pomegranates and fish heads? Think again. The array of simanim goes way beyond what you’ll find in a standard siddur, or those silly laminated cards. You just have to know where to look. These traditional but obscure Rosh Hashanah symbolic foods will make your table more exotic and start fascinating conversations about language, tradition, and history. If you’re into that sort of thing.
Yeast extract, a by-product of beer production, has been sold in Britain as Marmite since 1902. Yeast in Hebrew is shmarim, which uses the root sh-m-r, to keep or protect. Since at least the 1920’s, British Jews have been spreading Marmite on their round Rosh Hashanah challah and asking God to protect them from enemies and misfortune. Love it or hate it, your year will be strongly flavored.
Galician Jewish refugees who made it to Hawaii in the early twentieth century held on to some peculiarities of pronunciation from Back East(ern Europe), including the use of “oi” where others would have the long “o” sound. Poi became a reference to a verse in Nitzavim, the portion of the Torah always read on the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah. In it, Moses tells the people that all the souls, including all future descendants, were “here” – poi, in Galician diction. Eating poi thus became a way to assert continued loyalty to the collective covenant with God.
In Hebrew, anything pickled is kavush – a word that also means “conquered.” We ask that we gain the strength to conquer our evil inclinations.
North American usage aside, properly a yam is quite different from a sweet potato, but since it’s just wordplay, use whichever root vegetable you like. Lithuanian Jews in Shanghai during the Second World War adopted this Asian tuber as an expression of their desire to swim in the sea – yam in Hebrew – of Torah study.
We also got this one from Lithuania via the Far East – but since Litvaks famously have trouble with the sh sound – veritable modern-day Ephramites – it became susi: the imperative singular feminine form of “be happy!” If that’s too much grammatical gobbledygook, don’t worry. Be happy.
This Indian category of dishes is used to ask God to be close when we call out to Him: b’kor’i – “when I call.”
You might think it’s yet another play on the “may we be a head and not a tail” aspiration, but (a) it’s not called a “head” in Hebrew, though you’re free to use that one anyway, and (b) Jewish lore uses the word “tail” as a euphemism for the penis anyway, so stop it. In any case, the Hebrew term for the glans is atara – “crown” – whereby we ask God to “crown us with the crown of salvation; adorn us with the crown of victory.”
You read that right. Ground up into a powder, glass is harmless. Medieval Jewish glassblowers of some Italian states, which had the surprisingly forward-thinking policy of actually letting Jews join professional guilds, worked their surplus material to a fine consistency and sprinkled it over various foods on Rosh Hashanah. The connection? Glass is z’chuchit – a word meaning “smooth” or “pure” that is related to z’chut – merit.
Not very much of it, mind you. But as some Balkan communities did, add a spoonful of rich topsoil to your honey cake and ask God to restore us to our ancestral soil.
Shaavah – wax – sounds fortuitously close to Shava’ah, crying out. Melt a few drops of your white Yom Tov candles onto the challah to give it an impressive sheen, and pray for God to heed our cries for salvation and closeness.
Wishing you all a gullible new year.
Find more tidbits at PreOccupied Territory.