The Food of Jewish Holidays

I have a confession. Everything I know about being Jewish I learned from Sex and the City and Adam Sandler. However, I’m a librarian. That makes me resourceful. I can learn about anything. For example, did you know that Rosh Hashanah began at sundown on Sunday, October 2nd this year? If you’re a Reform Jew, you only observe the first day, but if you’re Orthodox you observe days one and two. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year.

I’m also not afraid to ask people that I know for information about their lives. So when I remembered that I have a friend who’s a rabbi, I knew I had to hit her up for information to supplement what I’d find in books. So back to that New Year thing. Did you know there are at least TWO Jewish New Years? Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the year because as according to the Tanakh, the “Head of the Year” is the first day of the month of Tishri. But there’s also a New Year for the month of Nisan, the month where the Jewish forefathers were released from Egyptian slavery. It’s not so much about the being freed from slavery per se, but because the Jews were no longer oppressed, they could finally celebrate their religion the way they wanted by their own rules. So that’s why the celebration. It also falls in February, which is the beginning of Spring. Of course, just because you’re Jewish, that doesn’t mean you can’t also celebrate the secular New Year’s Eve on December 31st.

What’s the big deal about Rosh Hashanah? It literally means “The Day of the Sounding of the Ram’s Horn”, and that’s just what happens. A shofar (literally a ram’s horn) is blown to ring in the New Year, and also to “stir those who have drowsed in their duties and who have forgotten that man is but a very tiny being in the eyes of God”. The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time of solemnity, a season of forgiveness. During this season, the gates of heaven are open and then at the end of Yom Kippur, the gates officially close. An analogy my rabbi friend gave me was the thinning of the veil between worlds at Halloween and the Dia de los Muertos. It’s a time when communication can occur between people here on earth and those who have gone before. During the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Days of Repentance or the High Holy Days. Yom Kippur day is a day spent in prayer, where Jews will congregate at the synagogues and confess to every possible type of sin, just in case they’ve unknowingly committed one of them. The central message of Yom Kippur is “repent for the wrongs you have done”. Sounds kinda uncomfortable, I know. According to the rabbi, “Yom Kippur brings a spiritual peace that the negative things from the prior year are let go, and reminds me I’m moving forward.” You get forgiveness from your ancestors, your friends and family who are still living, and your God. Now it sounds nice. You’ve just gotta think about it right.

Most of the Jewish holidays have something to do with food. Either there’s a ritual meal, or as in the case of Yom Kippur, there’s a fast. Sometimes there’s wine involved. Most of the occasions involve challah bread. There are many symbolic things about this popular bread. To me, bread is mostly just food with varying degrees of deliciousness. But challah bread is special. Sometimes there are poppy or sesame seeds sprinkled on the crust before baking. These symbolize manna from heaven. Even the presentation of the bread is symbolic. Challah bread is presented under a decorative challah cover or a white napkin to symbolize the dew collected on the manna in the morning. The braided strands of the bread symbolize love, because they resemble arms. And last, but certainly not least by any stretch, is the shape of the bread itself. For Rosh Hashanah, challah bread is traditionally braided and then joined into a circle to symbolize continuity. Even the preparation of challah is ritualized. Many observant bakers will rip off a piece of dough about the size of an olive and burn it while saying a blessing. If I were to make challah in my kitchen, it wouldn’t be kosher, but if it’s made in a kosher Jew’s kitchen, it is. That’s because it’s made with oil, rather than butter. This differentiates it from many other sweet breads, because most of them are made with that ingredient.

Some bloggers rave about how delicious stale challah bread is when made into French toast, but according to my rabbi friend, it almost never lasts long enough to get made into French toast. At least, not in her house.

Posted: Tuesday, October 04, 2016