In many families, Bubby’s brisket is up there with round raisin challah, apples and honey, pomegranates, fish heads and the other traditional foods that invariably grace our Rosh Hashanah dinner tables. But where does this tradition come from, and does it have any true significance?

In the Times of Ezra

It was Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem and the Jews who had recently returned from the Babylonain exile to rebuild the Holy Temple gathered “as one person” to hear the Torah read by Ezra the Scribe. After hearing the Torah, the nation began to mourn and weep, realizing that it was the Day of Judgement and they had not fulfilled the Torah laws properly.

However, “Nehemiah . . . and Ezra the priest . . . said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the L‑rd your G‑d; neither mourn nor weep . . . Go eat succulent (literally “fatty”) foods and drink sweet beverages and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our L‑rd, and do not be sad, for the joy of the L‑rd is your strength.’ ”1

Thus, although Rosh Hashanah is a solemn day of judgment, it is also a day of festivities and rejoicing, for we are certain that the ultimate judge, “our Father our King,” will judge us favorably.2

Since the verse specifies fatty meat as exemplifying the tasty food one is to eat on this day, many have the custom to eat meat during the Rosh Hashanah meal.3

Not for Everyone

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that some had the custom to specifically refrain from eating meat on Rosh Hashanah.

This is based on the writings of Rabbi Yosef Caro (author of the Code of Jewish Law) in his work Maggid Meisharim, where he describes an angel called a maggid that would come to teach him mystical and esoteric teachings of the Torah (which are not included in the Code of Jewish Law). One thing the angel told him was to refrain from eating meat on Rosh Hashanah.4

However, as many note, the angel himself qualified his statement by saying, “Although Ezra said to go eat ‘fatty foods,’ he was speaking to the general populace, but I am talking to unique, outstanding individuals.” Thus, this is not a custom to be followed by the general public.5

Some do eat meat but are particular not to eat beef, since they do not want to hint at the sin of the Golden Calf, for which we are still paying the price.6

Others, however, note that in Mishnaic times the custom was seemingly to eat beef on Rosh Hashanah. 7 Indeed, the general custom (as recorded by the vast majority of both earlier and later halachic authorities) does not follow these alternative opinions, and beef is de rigueur on many Rosh Hashanah tables as per the basic meaning of Ezra’s instructions.8

Why Brisket?

Brisket became a popular “traditional” Jewish dish on Rosh Hashanah (and other Jewish holidays, for that matter) for a number of reasons.

Being a tougher cut of meat, it isn’t easily grilled and takes a lot longer to cook than some other cuts. This in turn made it a cheaper cut of meat (my, how things have changed!), allowing even Jews with limited income to purchase some in honor of the holiday.

Additionally, brisket is a larger cut of meat, making it ideal for large family gatherings.

Neither of these reasons have the slightest religious significance, and if you prefer a different cut, there is no objection from a traditional perspective.

Food for the Needy

The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—would often quote the verse in Ezra mentioned above, calling attention to its second part: “Go eat . . . and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared.”9

As we shop and cook for our holiday meals, let’s not forget about those less fortunate. Perhaps send them food or a gift card. Or better yet, invite them to your home for the holiday meal.

In this merit, may we all be blessed with a wonderful, healthy, sweet new year!