MY GRANDMOTHER DIDN’T cook very much – at least not that I remember. But she did have one specialty- taiglach. It was a pyramid of little balls of pastry and nuts dripping with honey. We all looked forward to her visit on Rosh Hashanah and her taiglach.
There are many customs we associate with the High Holidays, and eating foods made with or dipped in honey is one of them. The rabbinic custom of eating these foods such as apples dipped in honey expresses our hope for a sweet new year. As a symbol of sweetness, honey is found in other holiday foods such as honey cake. And we dip our challah in honey as well.
The challah, which is normally braided, is round at Rosh Hashanah to remind us of the continual cycle of life. While the first night of Rosh Hashanah is a family event with familiar foods, on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, it is common to eat a “new fruit.” It can also be a fruit that participants have not tasted for a long time. The new fruit is literally a way to taste the newness of the year. Often that new fruit is the rimon, or pomegranate which is special for many reasons.
Firstly, the pomegranate is one of the Seven Species of Israel and has traditionally been used as the “new fruit.” But the pomegranate is significant for other reasons as well. We hope that the many seeds in the fruit will equal the many good things of the New Year. In addition the pomegranate is said to have 613 seeds, which corresponds to the 613 mitzvot. And finally, the pomegranate as a symbol of fertility represents the unlimited possibilities for the New Year.
Another tradition is wearing white clothing on Yom Kippur -a tradition that symbolizes purity. The symbolism stems from the following verse in Isaiah (1:18): “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” White represents the purity we hope to achieve through our prayers on these holy days.
Wearing white is also believed to emulate the purity and holiness of the ministering angels. Another reason for wearing white on Yom Kippur relates to the solemn nature of the day. The Jewish custom is to bury the dead in white shrouds. So on Yom Kippur wearing white is to remind us of the temporary state of our lives and provide more motivation to repent.
The rabbi and cantor will usually wear kittels, or ritual white robes. It is not customary for congregants to wear these, so white or light clothing fulfills the same purpose. While the kittel has traditionally been worn in more conservative congregations, the tradition has been making its way into some progressive congregations as well. The kittel is also worn by traditional men at their weddings and resembles the burial shroud. Again, on Yom Kippur, wearing burial garments is a vivid reminder of the fragility of life.
There are two additional customs to note. First, we do not wear anything made of leather. Leather is seen as a luxury and not wearing it symbolizes humility and increased humanity. Leather also requires the death of a living creature, and during this time we should not benefit from another living creature’s death.
The second custom is wearing a tallit on Kol Nidre. While we do not wear tallit at night, Kol Nidre evening is one of the very few times in the Jewish year that all Jewish communities wear a large tallit. The white of the tallit also serves to suggest purity and mercy. One of the reasons for this is that during maariv (evening service) the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy ( “Ado–nay Ado–nay El Rachum v’Chanun…”) are chanted, and there is a very old custom that a tallit should be worn when doing this.
But perhaps the most enduring and recognizable symbol of the High Holidays is of course the shofar – a horn of a kosher animal with the marrow removed. The blowing of the shofar marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year and its blasts serve as a spiritual wake up call. Tradition says it is a great mitzvah if you blow the right sequence of blasts at the right time of year.
In the Bible, Rosh Hashanah is called “The Day of the Shofar Blast.” While the shofar is used mainly on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is also blown every day during the month of Elul as a prelude to the High Holidays. The final blast occurs at the end of Yom Kippur, to mark the end of the fast. Tradition also holds that the longer the shofar blower can hold the final note, the better the new year will be. It is not uncommon for congregants to count the seconds of the blast and burst into applause when the blast concludes. Perhaps they are also applauding in anticipation of the break–the-fast!
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.