I get the idea of eating traditional foods on the holidays. But Rosh Hashanah seems to be over the top. I was at a home where they had half a dozen dishes, each one symbolizing another wish for the coming year. It’s like thinking that G‑d will give you a better year because you ate butter, or a raise in salary because you ate raisins and celery—it seems downright outlandish to me. Why are we rational Jews doing something that seems superstitious?


Since the days of the Talmud, we’ve been eating foods with symbolic import on Rosh Hashanah. In fact, the Talmud’s1 list of things to eat was even codified in the Code of Jewish Law.2 Why is that? Let’s look at some of the answers given:

Food for Thought

Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249–1310) explains that these foods serve to focus our attention on the agenda of the day: prayer, repentance and resolution to do good.3

In fact, he says, the custom was initially just to look at or eat these foods and reflect on their meaning.4 With time, people became more engrossed in the eating and less in the introspection; therefore, many adopted the custom to recite a short prayer before eating each food, to ensure that the message remained front and center.

By examining the short prayer that some recite on each specific symbolic food, we can understand what one should be reflecting upon when eating. Thus, the head of a lamb or fish, for example, is meant to arouse us to ask that we “be the head, and not the tail."5

Based on this, it would seem that the purpose of this custom is to elicit and better focus our thoughts, since, to borrow a phrase from the Sefer HaChinuch, “a person’s heart and mind always follow after the actions that he does.”6

Others, however, explain that the purpose of this custom is not merely to focus our thoughts; rather, the action of eating these foods itself can, in a way, influence the divine blessings.

Concrete Prayers

Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, known as the Maharal of Prague (1520–1609), explains that often divine decrees and blessings that G‑d bestows on this world remain only in a potential state in the supernal worlds, until we do a physical act to concretize and give physical form to these decrees. The transition from potential to actual is dependent on a person’s physical actions.7

(This is why the prophets would perform a physical action to symbolize their prophecy. For example, the prophet Elisha had King Joash shoot an arrow toward the land of Aram, the enemy of the Jews at the time, and take an arrow and strike the ground, explaining that the number of blows would determine the force of Israel’s victory over Aram.8)

Accordingly, the Maharal explains, we eat foods that have a good sign at the start of the year, so that the divine decrees for a good year will emerge into our physical reality and be fulfilled.

In a somewhat similar vein, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (1783–1869) explains9 that eating these foods is not so much a prayer as it is an expression of our faith that we will be inscribed for a good, sweet year. This in itself, he explains, has the power to transform any negative decree into a positive one.10

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a sweet new year!