All people eat, but for Jewish people eating is an event! What holiday would be complete without food? Even Yom Kippur ends with a break fast. Food provides sustenance, strength and a sense of nurture, and even helps bring meaning and sanctity to Jewish life and community. As food is prepared in the Jewish home—whether for a holiday meal, or for Shabbat, or just everyday—the kitchen can serve as the gateway to the family as well as the community. Thus, the home and reverence for God, in combination with one’s congregation, become overlapping spaces where coming around the table helps shape community.
The spiritual dimension of food is perhaps most clearly seen at the Shabbat table. Since post-exilic times, it has been considered a Mizbeach, an altar. Whatever day one chooses to set apart as a time of rest, holy to the Lord, that meal can usher in a sense of the holy, a stepping away from the mundane. “The imagery (of the table) is always in terms of an altar, and the very act of eating is a form of offering to God, at which appropriate prayers are recited before and after.”1
Food plays such a significant role in Jewish life and customs that the word “food” itself is mentioned 256 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and 306 times in the New Testament! For Jewish believers in Jesus, we are encouraged that “…whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God(1 Corinthians 10:30-32).” Therefore, the eating of food becomes an occasion for us to recognize our Savior and share His goodness with others so they recognize Him, too, through the “altar” of our household table.
One Jewish custom that elevates the commonplace to something higher is that of salting our food. Traditionally, the Torah tells us to salt our offerings for two reasons: 1) to offer a completed offering and 2) to symbolize that our offerings help preserve our relationship with God. Since our table is like the altar, keeping salt on the table echoes the Torah commandment. But even more so, when we share our table with friends and also with the needy, our heart reflects the spirit of our offering and we share our food as people who are “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13a).
With the High Holidays upon us, food (or the absence of it on the Day of Atonement) can give definition and meaning to our observance. Note these High Holiday food traditions and perhaps incorporate some of them into your family table this year:
- We eat a sweet chicken or meat dish to symbolize our wish for a sweet year.
- Tzimmes is an eastern European recipe for honey-baked carrots or sweet potatoes. The Yiddish word meren means either “carrots” or “to increase.” Carrots symbolize our hope that we will increase our good deeds in the coming year. Prunes can be added to increase sweetness.
- Spinach symbolizes a green year with plenty of produce.
- Rice symbolizes abundance.
- Honey cake or teglach: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep…for the joy of God is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:9, 10). It is said that the prophet Nehemiah introduced to the Israelites the Persian custom of eating sweet foods to celebrate the new year.
- On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, we eat a new fruit which we have not yet eaten this season. When we eat this new fruit, we say the shehekiyanu blessing with thanks to God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this season.
- A pomegranate is often used as this new fruit. In the Bible, the land of Israel is often praised for its pomegranates. It is also said that the fruit contains 613 seeds just as there are 613 commandments. If you like, you can count them.
- Round challah (egg bread): This is an Ashkenazi tradition, instead of a braided challah. It symbolizes a perfect year to come. Raisins or honey are added to make it extra sweet.
- Apples and honey symbolize our wish for a sweet year to come.
- Sephardic Jews eat pumpkin, leeks, beets and dates on Rosh Hashanah.
- According to the Talmud, eating the day before Yom Kippur is a mitzvah equal to the mitzvah of fasting on Yom Kippur. The festive meal before the fast is called Seudah Mafseket (final meal). Chicken soup is traditionally served, along with other foods like chicken (but not meat). Kreplach (dough filled with potato) are added to the chicken soup because we hope any strict judgment from God will be covered with kindness. However, caution is given to not eat salty foods.
- The Yom Kippur Break fast (at last!): Most people break the fast with dairy foods because they are easier on the stomach. Bagels and cream cheese, as well as lox or blintzes are popular on the break fast menu.
It has been suggested that Sukkot and Thanksgiving echo each other in the types of foods, traditions and spiritual atmosphere that shape both holiday observances. “The pilgrims based their customs on the Bible,” says author Gloria Kaufer Greene. “They knew that Sukkot was an autumn harvest festival, and there is evidence that they fashioned the first Thanksgiving after the Jewish custom of celebrating the success of the year’s crops.”2
After their pilgrimage up to Jerusalem for Sukkot, the Israelites were commanded to live in temporary huts for seven days. Likewise, during their first winter in Massachusetts, the pilgrims dwelled in makeshift huts, or wigwams, that the Indians helped them build. The Sukkot meals are enjoyed in the sukkah for seven days, during which too much food is never a complaint.
It is traditional to eat vegetable and fruit dishes during both holidays. Dishes such as acorn squash stuffed with rice, stuffed cabbage and stuffed peppers are traditional during Sukkot as they symbolize the abundance of the harvest. Additional Sukkot dishes are:
- Beef Stew in a Pumpkin
- Pumpkin Pie
- Couscous with Currants and Dried Apricots
- Etrog (citrus) Jam
- Apple Strudel
- Hearts of Lulav (Palm) Salad
- Fruit Compote (dried fruit cooked slowly with fruit juices and spices)
Other works consulted for this article
- Come to the Table by Doris Christopher, Warner Books, 1999, New York, NY
- Living Jewish by Michael Asheri, Everest House, 1978, New York, NY
- Hungering for America by Hasia R. Diner, Harvard University Press, 2001, Cambridge, MA
- To Be a Jew by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, Basic Book Publishers, 1972, New York, NY
- New Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Gloria Kaufer Green, Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1999, New York, NY