Simanim, or symbols, are a popular feature at many families’ Rosh Hashanah tables. While some make sure to include every last siman from black eyed peas to spinach to beets, it is almost a given that the classics—apples, honey and pomegranate—will find their way to every Rosh Hashanah feast. And while the honey may be a little too sticky and those pomegranate seeds a little too messy, the good news is that all three of these foods have wonderful nutritional benefits.
We all know that an “apple a day keeps the doctor away,” but why? Apples are a good source of fiber. Not only does one medium apple supply 4.4 grams of fiber, but much of that fiber is soluble fiber which may help lower cholesterol levels and helps regulate blood sugar for diabetics. Also, frequent consumption of apples may help reduce the risk of stroke. A study published in 2011 in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association found that individuals who ate a lot of white fleshed fruits and vegetables (such as apples, pears and cauliflower) were found to have a 52 percent lower risk for stroke than individuals who did not consume them. Apples are also high in quercetin, an antioxidant which acts like an anti-inflammatory as well as an antihistamine. While we see that an apple a day may really help reduce the need for frequent medical visits, apples may prevent frequent trips to the dentist, as well. Apples have been given the nickname “Nature’s toothbrush” as they increase saliva flow and reduce the levels of bacteria in the mouth. There are many wonderful reasons to include apples in your diet, and with September through November being the peak season for apples, Rosh Hashanah is the perfect time to enjoy a sweet apple.
On Rosh Hashanah many have the custom to make a variety of sweet foods for a sweet new year, and no table is complete without a honey dish at its center. Honey, besides being sweet and tasty, also has many important nutritional benefits. Phytonutrients found in honey have antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties. Honey has also been used for centuries topically for the treatment of burns, wounds and ulcers. However, the processing of honey strips away many of these benefits making raw honey the honey of choice if you want to maximize on these nutritional benefits.
On the other hand, the National Institute of Health warns that consuming raw honey may cause food poisoning, and it may not be advisable to use this especially for those who are immunocompromised. It is also important to note that no child under one year of age should have honey (even if baked in foods), as honey may contain spores of Clostridium botulinum, which can cause infant botulism, a potentially fatal illness. Once a child is over the age of one his or her digestive tract is better equipped to handle these spores.
Another food that holds a prominent spot on the Rosh Hashanah table is the majestic pomegranate. The myriad seeds embedded in the pomegranate reminds us of the many mitzvos and the merits that we want to be used in our favor. Some even use the pomegranate as a new fruit, however as the pomegranate has become known as a “super-food” its use has become more common place and fewer individuals are likely able to use this as a new fruit. But does pomegranate live up to its name of a super-food? The research regarding health benefits of regular consumption of pomegranates is still in its early stages. Preliminary research has shown it to be effective in preventing and reversing atheroscleroris, improving blood flow to the heart in patients with coronary artery disease, lowering post prandial (after a meal) blood sugars, preventing the onset of osteoarthritis, and may slow prostate cancer growth. As of 2011, there were over two dozen trials registered with the National Institute of Health looking at the effect of pomegranate extract or juice consumption on a range of diseases.
So, to my father who always jokes that if he didn’t eat an apple on the first night of Rosh Hashanah he could make a shechiyanu on it on the second night, and all others who don’t like to include fruits and vegetables in their daily diet, this year enjoy the simanim on Rosh Hashanah and throughout the year to make it happy and healthy.
By Shoshana Genack MS, RD