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Rosh Hashanah in the Middle Ages

By Sandra Alvarez

As the Jewish High Holy Days takes place, we take a look at how Jews celebrated Rosh Hashanah in the Middle Ages. Although the holiday pre-dates the period, some foods and traditions were adopted during then and have been retained to the present day in the celebration of this Jewish holiday.

Detail of a marginal drawing of a man blowing the shofar in the lower margin, at an instruction to blow the shofar. British Library Additional 26968 f. 244
Detail of a marginal drawing of a man blowing the shofar in the lower margin, at an instruction to blow the shofar. British Library Additional 26968 f. 244

Rosh Hashanah is celebrated in the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, Tishri. It is a solemn time when Jews reflect and reconcile themselves with God, and also commemorates the creation of the world. In ancient times, the holiday wasn’t always celebrated in Tishri, (which tends to fall in September and October in the Gregorian calendar) it was celebrated in the spring, on the first day of Nisan. Early practices were minimal, as Rosh Hashanah was originally considered a minor holiday. The exact date when it was celebrated as a major holiday is unsure, suggesting that its deeper significance may have been lost, however, it’s believed that its importance as a major holiday started around the time of the Second Temple. The first recorded mention of Rosh Hashanah was in the Book of Ezekiel 40:1.

During Rosh Hashanah three books are opened during: a book for the wholly wicked, a book for the wholly good and a book for the average class. The fate of this final class hangs in the balance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If you can prove yourself worthy, you are inscribed into the book of life (the book of the good). This period of reckoning between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur has been known as, “The Days of Awe” since the 14th century. This is the first of the High Holy Days, which got its name from the English medieval phrase: “High Day and Holydays”.

Medieval Additions

Although the holiday pre-dates the Middle Ages, there were several traditions that arose during this period that have remained popular to the present day. The tradition of dipping apples in honey, which signifies starting off of the New Year sweetly, was not initially practiced by the ancient Israelites, “Apples are not an ancient custom…Biblical Israelites were not consuming apples at Rosh Hashanah”, according to Professor Jordan D. Rosenblum. Another tradition that developed in the Middle Ages was the eating of pomegranates. This arose from the erroneous belief that there were 613 seeds in a pomegranate, the exact same number as the Jewish commandments. In the 15th century, the tradition of emptying your pockets into bodies of water such as wells, rivers, or the sea, grew out of the belief that this was a way of shedding sin. Rosh Hashanah is also known as, “The Feast of the Trumpets”, where the Shofar, usually a ram’s horn, is blown up to 101 times. The practice of blowing it 101 times was first mentioned in the medieval commentaries on the Talmud, the Tosafot. Tosafot literature originated in France in the 12th century, where scholars added their commentaries to Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud.

Illustration from Juedisches Ceremoniel, a German book published in 1724. The book is a beautifully illustrated description of Jewish religious ceremonies, rites of passage and feast days, which first appeared in 1716, here in its second edition of 1724.
Illustration from Juedisches Ceremoniel, a German book published in 1724. The book is a beautifully illustrated description of Jewish religious ceremonies, rites of passage and feast days, which first appeared in 1716, here in its second edition of 1724.

Medieval Foods for Rosh Hashanah

Another tradition that developed in the Middle Ages was the consumption of gefilte fish, an Ashkenazi tradition that replaced the ancient tradition of eating a calf’s head. There were also Tsimmes, a sweet baked carrot and fruit dish popular with Ashkenazi Jews in the Middle Ages. Herring, salmon and carp were the preferred fish of choice and were usually grilled, fried or jellied. Chicken was also a food found at the medieval Rosh Hashanah table. In Provence, Jewish families ate white figs, white grapes, whites dates and calf’s head symbolic of the sacrifice of Isaac. Other foods that could be found at the medieval Rosh Hashanah table were cucumbers, spiced mushrooms, fennel in broth, salted herring, roast lamb, roast beef, frumenty, blaunche porre (which was a leek type soup), apples dipped in honey, and hypocras, a drink of wine mixed with sugar and spices.



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