The pomegranate, known for its health benefits, is one of my wife’s favorite fruits. She not only enjoys eating them raw, but also has some amazing recipes for cooking with them, including pomegranate chicken, one of her signature dishes. Over the years we have amassed a collection of over 100 pomegranates and pomegranate-related objects, including framed Rosh Hashanah New Year’s cards, ceramics and plaques, bowls of dried pomegranates, and even U.S. stamps depicting pomegranates. My wife has pomegranate-shaped jewelry including a beautiful pomegranate necklace that I bought in Safed and a copper pomegranate bracelet from our children. Once, we came upon a pomegranate coffee table in a furniture store with unique items – but felt it might be “over the top” even for us!
One custom associated with the Jewish New Year is eating symbolic foods. The most well-known custom is eating apples dipped in honey, demonstrating our wishes for a sweet new year. Many practice the custom of eating foods that serve as good omens or hints of blessing as we end one year and enter into the next one. A Talmudic rabbi named Abaye suggested that serving these symbolic foods as we begin the new year will bring about a positive judgment in God’s court on high., Foods that either have a quick growth cycle or a particularly sweet taste (such as leeks, gourds, beets and dates) are particularly popular. The ancient rabbis added other symbols, including the head of an animal or a fish, implying that we should be at the head of the line for good merits, and sweet beverages. Some people eat carrots (mehren in Yiddish which is similar to the Yiddish word mehr or more) connoting that we hope to receive more blessings.
But for me, the most evocative symbol of the new year is the pomegranate, with its tough red outer skin and spongy web of inner pulp with many seeds. As a child in Religious School I was taught that each pomegranate contains 613 seeds — which just happens to be the exact number of mitzvot/commandments we count in the Torah. [Surprisingly, there is actually scientific data supporting the finding that on average, pomegranates actually DO have 613 seeds.]
According to The Code of Jewish Law “we are accustomed to eating pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah and we recite: May our merits be as numerous as the seeds in a pomegranate.” Further, a verse in the Song of Songs (4:43) states “your cheek is like a pomegranate.” This is a play on words. The Hebrew word for cheek, rakateich has a root similar to the Hebrew word rake which means empty. The analogy implies that even empty ones (i.e. people who might otherwise be considered to have no merits at all) are truly filled with virtues, just as a pomegranate is filled with seeds, but those virtues are merely hidden behind a tough skin. This reminds us to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. How often do we rush to judge others based on their outward appearance? How often do we miss the opportunity to gain benefits from taking the time to get to know their inner nature?
As we enter the New Year of 5777, may our merits be as numerous as the seeds in a pomegranate, and may we learn to focus on the sweetness and goodness that lies beneath the surface in every living being. Wishing you a New Year of peace, prosperity and sweetness!