Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is often marked with a meal full of symbolic foods – foods whose names in Aramaic or Hebrew evoke blessings for the new year. But the foods on our holiday table also give us a chance to start a discussion about Jewish values and our role in the world.
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Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of the world. After God finished creating the world on the sixth day, the essence of our humanity – good and evil, beauty and sin, responsibility and free will — was unleashed into that world after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, according to an interpretation of the Bible.
Today, as then, these narratives remain at the core of our essence. As Jews, our covenant with God requires that we not only protect the world but strive to improve it – the concept of tikkun olam.
At the Rosh Hashanah table, we can invoke our responsibility for tikkun olam by considering how each food found its way to our plate. Where did the raw ingredients come from? Who grew and harvested them? Is this food worthy of a blessing?
Take, for example, the fresh produce that is often abundant on the holiday table - apples, pomegranate seeds, carrots, beans, greens and more. The ingredients for an American meal will travel approximately 1,500 miles before winding up on your plate. The majority of the nation’s produce is grown in California, whose multi-billion agricultural sector has been severely impacted by the worst recorded drought in the region's history, with crops drying up, fields left unplowed and thousands of workers unemployed.
Unlike Americans, Israelis are lucky that “farm to table” is the default: Israel is a small country, and it grows 95% of the fresh produce it consumes. Yet Israel's farming industry is not entirely sustainable, and is not devoid of moral failings. Some 20,000 Thai migrant workers form the backbone of Israel's farming industry. In January, Human Rights Watch found that industry rife with abuse and violations. In addition, 122 Thai farm workers died in Israel between 2008 and 2013. One worker explained to a BBC reporter, "We were working so hard, with no holidays or breaks. People get so tired that their bodies cannot take it.”
These conditions challenge humanity – both theirs and ours. Our Torah tells us, “Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates. Give him his wages in the daytime, and do not let the sun set on them, for he is poor, and his life depends on them, lest he cry out to God about you, for this will be counted as a sin for you.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). The farm workers' suffering should be a call for action.
Alongside the human cost, some of our holiday foods also symbolize the environmental cost of our food industry. Take, for example, the apples dipped in honey. Honey is the lifeblood of our food: Bees pollinate one-third of all foods that we eat. But, Colony Collapse Disorder is threatening honey bees' survival and our global food security. While the cause is not clear yet, scientists, beekeepers and activists believe it is pervasive pesticides called Neonicotinoids that are toxic to honey bees. The principle of bal taschchit – the commandment in Deuteronomy not to destroy or waste – is often invoked as a directive to protect our environment. In this case, the Jewish thing to do is to seek foods grown without harmful pesticides.
In the new year, we can fulfill our responsibilities as Jews and bring holiness to our meals by demanding foods grown by workers treated fairly and legally. By seeking foods raised without harmful pesticides, we can protect the health of farm workers, prevent water and air pollution and support honeybee populations.
We have the opportunity not only at Rosh Hashanah, but every day, to renew ourselves and the world through our deeds. Our ultimate goals might be beyond our grasp in this lifetime, but we must pursue them. Like Moses, who never made it into the Promised Land, we should not be deterred from doing our part in a multi-generational effort to achieve global justice, through simple yet profound acts.
Sarah Newman writes Neesh Noosh: A Jewish Woman’s Journey to Find Faith in Food.
Rosh Hashanah roasted stuffed squash
This recipe for a vegetarian main course for Rosh Hashanah was inspired by our world. In this dish, the roasted kabocha squash, one of the traditional symbolic foods for the holiday, represents the round earth, full of sweetness inside – in this case dried fruits – for a sweet new year. The serving platter is sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, a traditional holiday food representing abundance.
1 Kabocha squash (or another type of pumpkin or squash)
2 cups cooked brown rice
1/2 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup chopped raisins
1/2 cup chopped apple
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tbsp honey
optional: 1 tbsp orange zest
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste
1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Wash the outside of the squash and make a few slices with a knife into the squash to let steam escape from the inside, being careful not to cut all the way through. Rub 1 tbsp olive oil on the outside of the entire squash.
3. Place on tray and bake in the oven for approximately 40 minutes or until a knife can easily slice into it (exact time will vary, based on size of squash). Remove from oven and let cool.
4. In a separate bowl, mix cooked rice with fruits. Add orange juice, honey, zest, 1 tbsp olive oil and salt to taste. Mix thoroughly.
5. Carefully cut a hole into the top of the squash and carefully remove the inner seeds. Pour rice mixture inside. Place on a platter and sprinkle pomegranate seeds around it. Serve by scooping out both a spoonful of the rice mixture and a piece of squash.
6. Leftover rice filling can be served on the side.