Rosh Hashanah: Apples and honey for a sweet year

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WE ARE IN Elul, the last month in the Hebrew calendar. That means Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is right around the corner. This year, it starts the evening of September 4 and continues until sunset September 6.

If you have Jewish friends or co-workers, you may hear them say, “Rosh Hashanah is so early this year!” Indeed it is. Sometimes it doesn’t start until the end of September. In fact, this is the earliest Rosh Hashanah can be—the last time it started the evening of September 4 was 1899! (The latest date it can be is October 5, which won’t happen again until 2047.)

The Jewish calendar, like the Muslim calendar, is lunar, with months of 28 or 29 days. But unlike the Muslim calendar, the Jewish calendar makes corrections to keep the holidays seasonal: Rosh Hashanah will always be in the fall, and Passover will always be in the spring. It’s a complex system, involving seven leap years in a cycle of 19 years.

Adding a month in leap year

In a leap year, an extra month is added to the calendar. The coming year is a leap year, so there will be a second month of Adar in the spring, before Passover, which will push back everything that follows. Next year’s Rosh Hashanah won’t start until the evening of September 24.

Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom HaDin, Day of Judgment. Traditionally, this is the time that God decides everyone’s fate for the coming year. One’s fate is “sealed” on Yom Kippur, 10 days later, allowing for a period of atonement and repentance that can reverse a less-than-favorable decree.

The season of spiritual introspection starts for many people at the beginning of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Ideally, we should spend time every day in Elul thinking about what’s happening in our lives, what’s going on that we’re not too thrilled about, what we want to change, and how we’re going to behave to bring about that change.

The real question: What’s for dinner?

In actuality, though, most Jewish women spend a good deal of time during Elul thinking about who they are going to invite for Rosh Hashanah dinner–or whose house they are going to go to for dinner–and what they are going to serve or bring as part of the dinner. Who will make the fish? Chicken, brisket or turkey? Should we buy the food now, or will there be a big sale next week? If we start cooking now, do we have enough room in the freezer?

The meal often includes the usual suspects of Ashkenazic (Eastern European) Jewish festive dining: chicken soup, gefilte fish, and roast poultry or meat, along with sweet side dishes made with carrots, sweet potatoes and/or fruits. For dessert there might be an apple cake or honey cake.

Want to try the sweet-sticky teiglach this year? Among the holiday dessert options, you might hear about teiglach, a confection made by boiling small balls of dough in a honey/sugar syrup until you have a nice, sticky mound of honey-coated pastry, often mixed with nuts or fruit. Confession: I have never even eaten teiglach, much less made it. It’s quite labor-intensive, and I don’t even know anyone who makes it—though I might give it a try this year, now that I’m retired!  This looks like the best of the many recipes I found online, and is the one I’m likely to try.

No matter what’s on the menu, every Jewish holiday table will include apples and honey. At the start of all of the festive meals–lunch and dinner on both days of the holiday–we dip a piece of apple in honey and recite a blessing, asking that our lives be renewed for a good and sweet year.

Why apples? According to the Jewish educational organization Aish, the Jewish people are compared to the apple in the Song of Songs (2:3): “As the apple is rare and unique among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved (Israel) amongst the maidens (nations) of the world.”

A side note: the Talmud, the major compendium of Jewish law, says the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden was wheat, figs or grapes, not apples. According to Aish, there is one Jewish source that mentions an apple as being the fruit of temptation, but that source doesn’t have the authority of the Talmud. However, the Christian world adopted the apple story. Some scholars think this started with a pun in a Latin translation of the Bible: the same word, “malum,” can mean “apple” or “evil.”

Why honey? Not only is it sweet, but it recalls God’s promise, repeated often in the Torah, to bring the Children of Israel to “a land flowing with milk and honey.” In those days, the reference was more likely to have been to the syrup of overripe dates than to the bee honey we are more familiar with.

Here is a recipe for honey cake that I often make at Rosh Hashanah. I wish all my readers, of whatever faith, a sweet and happy year.

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