Rosh Hashanah (meaning “Head of the Year” in Hebrew) marks the start of the sacred ten day period of the Jewish calendar called the “High Holy Days” culminating with Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is informally known as the Jewish New Year. In fact, for different purposes, as explained in the Mishnah and Talmud, there are four different times the year starts, with Rosh Hashanah being specifically the New Year for people, animals, and legal contracts, and the date used for calculating sabbatical and jubilee years.
Rosh Hashanah can be understood as representing either the day God created the world, or the day God created the human race, back in the time of Genesis.
In the Talmud-in the Gemora in the tractate of Kerisus specifically-it is stated “At the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates.” These have become traditional foods for the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Each has a symbolic meaning, based on the Hebrew word for each of these.
In Hebrew, the word for “gourd” is similar to the word for “read or proclaim.” The word for “fenugreek” (which is an herb used in curry, by the way) is similar to the word for “increase.” The word for “leeks” is similar to the word for “cut off” or “destroy.” The word for “beets” is similar to the word for “removal.” The word for “dates” is similar to the word for “consumed.”
A symbolic interpretation of these five traditional Rosh Hashanah foods, then, is a wish that the merits of the Jewish people be proclaimed to God, a resolution to increase those merits, and a prayer that the enemies of the Jewish people be destroyed, removed, and/or consumed.
In addition to these five traditional foods, many other food-related customs have grown up around Rosh Hashanah.
In general, sweet foods (to symbolize hope for good fortune in the year to come) are favored, and sour or bitter foods are avoided. Thus the main meal on the eve of Rosh Hashanah traditionally starts with a piece of apple or challah (braided bread) dipped in honey.
Almonds are avoided in some communities for their bitterness, and for their being shaped like tears. Also, they are nuts, and some communities avoid nuts altogether because the Hebrew word for “nut” is similar to the word for “sin.”
Fish, fowl, and meat are sometimes served whole, to symbolize hope for the wholeness of the coming year. Some communities put a special emphasis on fish, as a symbol of fertility and the purity of running water, though Algerian Jews go to the opposite extreme and avoid fish, on the grounds that the Hebrew word for “fish” is similar to the word for “worry.”
Pomegranates are a common fruit served on Rosh Hashanah. Some see their many seeds as symbolic of the 365 days in the new year; others see them as representing the 613 good deeds that a Jewish person is called upon to perform each year.
Even the shapes of the dishes on Rosh Hashanah can be meaningful. It is traditional to favor round shapes, to symbolize wholeness and continuity. The challah, for this reason, is often baked as a round loaf.
There is much variation in custom from one Jewish community to another, but these are a few of the food-related traditions you may come across on Rosh Hashanah.
“Rosh Hashanah.” Gems in Israel.
Rabbi Yehudah Prero, “Rosh HaShanah: The Custom of Eating Symbolic Foods.” Torah.org.