Why do we focus on food on Rosh HaShanah?

September 4, 2017 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple answers the question…


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. On a spiritual day like Rosh HaShanah why do people focus on food?

A. Some foods are symbolic such as apple and honey, which represent the hope of a sweet year. Many people have a whole array of “simanim”, symbolic foods.

Apart from this, Nehemiah said, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet and send portions to those who have nothing, for this day is holy to the Lord” (Neh. 8:10).

Holiness is not only how we think and pray but how we hallow every act of daily living – how we walk, how we dress, how we speak… and how we eat and drink.

Shared meals make family and friends into a fellowship in which you are holy through how you interact, give each other support and spread happiness.


Q. Does a shofar have to come from a ram?

A. The shofar must come from a kosher animal (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 3:2), but not from a cow because of its association with the sin of the golden calf (the Talmud says, “A prosecutor cannot be a defender at the same time”).

According to Rabbi Abbahu, the ram’s horn is best because its curved shape symbolises humble submission and it reminds us of the story of the binding of Isaac, with its message of faith in God.


Q. Why do some worshippers wear a white “kittel” on the High Holydays?

A. The kittel is a simple white robe reminiscent of “tachrichim”, shrouds.

The white colour is a symbol of the purity which we hope to attain through our prayers. Isaiah says, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isa. 1:18).

At a certain university a non-Jewish lecturer in Semitics once asked the students to bring a Kittel to the next day’s lecture. She meant the Rudolph Kittel critical edition of the Hebrew Bible. Never having heard of that work, an orthodox Jewish student turned up with his yom-tov kittel.

It took hard work for lecturer and student to clear up the misunderstanding!


Q. I learnt recently that a sentence had been omitted from “Alenu”. Can you give me details?

A. The sentence is from Isaiah 30:7 and 45:2. Contrasting Israel and the heathen nations, it says: “For they bow down to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god that cannot save”.

Rav, who composed Alenu in 3rd century Babylon, probably never met a Christian, and Isaiah (8th century BCE) was clearly not attacking a religion that came into being nearly a millennium later; but in the medieval period baptised Jews claimed this sentence was anti-Christian.

Jewish scholars repeatedly protested that the accusation was preposterous, but it still led to antisemitic attacks. In Prussia in 1803 an edict was issued that the sentence was to be eliminated and the whole of Alenu was to be said aloud without it. Commissioners visited the synagogues to supervise the implementation of the edict.

The sentence is however today maintained in the Sephardi rites as well as in some Ashkenazi congregations.

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