July 14, 2024
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Although the term “Mah Nishtanah” is associated with Pesach, readers of this column will have every right to exclaim “Mah Nishtanah” beginning this Sunday night as they sit down to partake of the first of four Rosh Hashanah repasts. They will have gained five Yiddish terms germane to the first meals of the year. Even before the brisket or chicken is served, these terms will guarantee that the meal will take on a Yiddesher ta’am (Jewish flavor).

Eppl (apple). One would do well to ask why the apple was the fruit of choice for Rosh Hashanah. Although it is tempting to link the apple with Adam and Eve, our tradition relates that when Ya’akov approached his father to receive the blessing intended for his brother, Yitzchak remarked: “Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which God has blessed.” The Talmud (Ta’anit 29b) explains that this “fragrance of the field” was the scent of an apple orchard. Based on the biblical episode along with its Talmudic insight, our tradition identifies apples with blessings.

Honik (honey). There are two Jewish holy days that merit the Yiddish word zees (sweet) when extending the festival blessing. Come Passover, we wish one another a zeesn Paysech. Come the High Holy Days, we wish one another a zees yor. One would do well to ask, why honey and not sugar? Or, as the Yiddish aphorism asks: Voss bahdahrf men honik ahz tzooker iz zees (Why should one need honey if sugar is sweet)? Unlike sugar, honey is derived from bees, notorious for their sting. Perhaps the unspoken message is let this be a year of honey rather of sting.

Kyle’echdik (circular). Most of us use the adjectives circular and round interchangeably. Yet, the challahs that adorn our Tishrei tables are described as kyle’echdik and not roond (round). Perhaps the inherent message is that a blessed year is one where we were able to complete a circle, as opposed to a meaningless year where we accomplish nothing more than going around the mulberry bush.

Toonken/eyentoonken (dip/dip in). American Jews ought to bring the Yiddish word toonken to mind whenever they pass by Dunkin’ Donuts. Among Ashkenazi Jews in particular, there is the custom of eyentoonken a piece of kyle’echdik challah into honey. This is followed by reciting a blessing over the eppl. We then proceed with eyentoonken eppl in honik as well.

Milgroim (pomegranate). Word has it that pomegranates contain 613 seeds corresponding to the 613 mitzvos in the Torah. Just as the pomegranate is placed before us at the beginning of the year, so too may the 613 mitzvos of the Torah be placed before us throughout the year. The milgroim was also one of the fruits brought back by the twelve tribes sent to scout out the Promised Land. Perhaps this serves as an additional milgroim message to look for the good and positive throughout the year.

The eyentoonken of the kyle’echdik challah followed by the eppl in honik at our Rosh Hashanah meals along with the milgroim provides excellent food for thought as we embark upon a goot gebentsht zees yor (good, blessed, sweet year).


Rabbi Shawn Zell has recently returned to New Jersey, after serving at a pulpit in Dallas. He possesses certification in teaching Yiddish. Rabbi Zell is the author of three books.

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