Apples and honey may be the ingredients most commonly associated with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year celebration—they bid sweet tidings for the coming months. Indeed, every year, as summer draws to a close (on the first day of the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar), my family drizzles honey on pillowy challah and slices into sugar-dusted apple cake.
But pomegranate is just as significant.
Perhaps you’re more familiar with pomegranates touted as a “superfood”. In 2009, POM Wonderful ran an ad with the slogan, “Cheat death—the antioxidant power of pomegranate juice.” (It was quickly banned, as were other ads claiming the juice will prevent heart disease, cancer, and erectile dysfunction.)
While the fruit will not make you immortal or especially virile, numerous pomegranate health claims are backed by science. It’s linked to everything from increased muscle strength and improved cholesterol levels to immune health and even some anti-cancer properties. Coincidence though it may be, POM Wonderful’s co-owner Stewart Resnick relies on eight ounces of the juice and a pomegranate pill every day—he is a prostate cancer survivor and told Forbes he hasn’t had a cold in 10 years.
Health-boosting properties aside, the fruit’s sweet-tart seeds, or arils, are essentially nature’s Gushers. That alone makes them worthy of adoration in my opinion, but, of course, there’s more history involved with pomegranates’ significance.
In the Jewish faith, pomegranates are known as one of the “seven species of Israel,” along with wheat, barley, grapes, figs, olives, and dates—a concept outlined in the Parashat Eikev Torah portion. These plants are held in the highest regard and are often incorporated into everyday eating, as well as ceremonies and art.
Records of the pomegranates’ existence date back at least to ancient Elam and Mesopotamia in the third and fourth millennium BCE. It’s most likely that the fruit originally grew wildly in what is now Iran, but references to pomegranates—both cultivated and wild—also appear during this time around Levantine regions like modern-day Palenstine, Syria, Greece, and Egypt, plus parts of northern India.
Because of their blood-red color, tangy flavor, and nutritional properties (particularly when it comes to digestion), pomegranates took on greater significance than other fruits in folklore and holistic medicine, appearing in Persian and Greek mythology. (Isfandiyar eats a pomegranate and becomes invincible; Persephone is forced to eat arils in the underworld.) In Indian Ayurveda, pomegranate is recommended for everyday regulation of the different body doshas, not to mention specific medicinal applications from nosebleeds to dehydration. Pomegranates were also significant in Islamic and Buddhist religious traditions. (Respectively, they’re said to grow in gardens of paradise described in the Quran, and are seen by Buddhists as one of the “three blessed fruits.”)
“Pomegranates were foreign to Ashkenazim, but extremely important in central Asian and Sephardic culture from the onset,” notes Gil Marks in Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, which features a pomegranate on the cover. “When the Moors invaded Iberia in 711, they found a Jewish community on a hillside in northern Spain, which they named Gharnata al Yahud (literally ‘pomegranates of the Jews’); this city later became Granada.” Marks adds that the fruit has inspired Jewish cooks and artisans for millennia—from sixth-century Israelite vessels and ancient Jewish coins (pomegranates, known as “rimon” in Hebrew, are still pictured on modern Israeli versions), to ornate silver covers for Torah scrolls, which are still called “rimonim.”
On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, it’s custom to say prayers over wine, honey- or raisin-sweetened challah, and apples. On the second night, pomegranates are often eaten instead of apples. As Marks writes: “The Rosh Hashanah simile is, ‘may we be full of merits like the pomegranate [is full of seeds.]’” Sephardic Jewish households frequently incorporate pomegranates on the Rosh Hashanah seder plate (along with items like leeks, pumpkin, apples, and walnut-stuffed dates), signifying a wish for blessings in the coming year.
“Jewish tradition teaches that the pomegranate is a symbol of righteousness, knowledge, and wisdom because it is said to have 613 seeds, each representing one of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah,” Damien Stone writes in Pomegranate: A Global History. Though the theory has been dismissed—each pomegranate does not in fact have the same number of seeds—the fruit has maintained its significance in Judaism.
“Pomegranates and Rosh Hashanah are inextricably linked in my mind,” The Jewish Cookbook author Leah Koenig told me. “I typically incorporate them as dessert—setting out a platter of Medjool dates, a couple types of cookies, whole pistachios, a broken bar of dark chocolate, and small wedges of pomegranates. It's such a gorgeous and simple way to end a festive meal.”
When it comes to incorporating pomegranate into dishes for Rosh Hashanah, there’s no wrong answer. Though the entire pomegranate is technically edible, the rind and membrane are quite bitter. The Cocoa Puffs–sized arils, on the other hand, have infinite possibilities. Eaten whole or pressed into juice, they lend tangy, floral flavor for braising meat, garnishing salads or roasted vegetable sides, as well as cocktails or mulled wine, and dessert.
Girl Meets Farm host, cookbook author, and blogger Molly Yeh likes to make a pomegranate glaze for her round loaves of challah. The formula is wicked simple, just powdered sugar and pomegranate juice: Start with 1 cup of sugar and whisk in 1 to 2 tablespoons of juice, until your desired consistency is reached. “It’s the prettiest natural pink color,” Yeh said.
Eden Grinshpan, cookbook author and host of Top Chef Canada, recommends incorporating both pomegranate arils and molasses for depth. She points to two recipes from her book, Eating Out Loud, for Rosh Hashanah: cracked freekeh with walnuts, mint, and arils tossed with molasses and a honey-lemon dressing, and baba ghanoush, which Grinshpan said “is loaded with the jeweled fruit.” A sprinkle of seeds lends “the creamy, smoky baba a pop of bright flavor and texture.”
When simmered until thick and sticky, pomegranate juice transforms into a lightly sweet, slightly tannic molasses. A common ingredient in Iranian and Turkish cooking, it can be purchased at many grocery stores or online, but you can also make your own. Start a meal with muhammara, the Turkish red pepper and walnut spread. Then try this molasses-marinated flank steak as a main, with glazy roasted carrots on the side. For dessert (or breakfast tomorrow?), pomegranate molasses adds fruity nuance to this pomegranate passion cake, which features both the molasses and a whole cup of seeds sprinkled on top.
And while pomegranates can take a bit of effort to seed, the internet is packed with hacks to make the process easier. In The 100 Most Jewish Foods, before the book’s own “schmutz-free” seeding method (whacking the halved fruit with a spoon over a bowl), psychosexual therapist, author, and teacher Dr. Ruth K. Westheimer shares her own thoughts on the fruit: “I do know that pomegranates are great, but it takes effort to eat one. That’s definitely like good sex: It takes work for both to be good lovers.”