The Rosh Hashanah Seder

September 7, 2018

This Sunday night is Rosh Hashanah Eve. It’s the beginning of the New Year for Jews all over the world. As usual, Jewish holidays are complex, and have so many components. And . . . as with most Jewish holidays, there’s a religious component that takes place in the synagogue, and a family/social/spiritual/communal component that takes place in the home. And, of course EATING is a major part of Jewish celebrations. But – eating is never just about eating. It has symbolic and spiritual meaning as well. Food brings us together. And specific foods always characterize a Jewish meal. On Sabbaths and holidays, we begin by blessing (and drinking) wine. Wine has always been seen as the symbol of joy, and it indicates that Sabbath and holidays (and weddings, and circumcision ceremonies) are joyous. It says in the book of Psalms, after all, that “Joy makes glad the heart of people.) [Psalms 104:15) We bless bread at any meal praising God for “bringing forth bread from the earth.” Bread, of course, doesn’t come directly from the earth – it’s an important symbol for a God who provides the raw materials through nature, and humans who take the natural resources and team up with God by making this unbelievably complicated food.

On Rosh Hashanah, of course, there are additional foods. We eat apples which are round, without beginning or end like time, and therefore a symbol of the year. And … we dip the apples in honey as a symbolic wish for a sweet new year. My great aunt Katie was particularly superstitious about food on Rosh Hashanah. She served gefilte fish, of course, but she wouldn’t let us put horseradish on our fish as usual. She was afraid that if we ate something bitter on Rosh Hashanah, we’d have an entire bitter year. Tzimmis – a concoction of sweet potatoes, carrots, prunes, and honey symbolizes the wish for a sweet year.

Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews have eaten other special symbolic foods called “simanim,” – signs/symbols. Each food has a blessing, usually with a play on words or reference to the food. Some are easy to figure out:

Pomegranates: we say a blessing that asks that our merits increase in number like the seeds of a pomegranate.

A rams head (yes . . . a rams head, but over the centuries people started substituting a fish head): we say a blessing that ask that we be the head rather than the tail.

Sometimes the blessings are more esoteric.

Carrots: the word for carrot in Hebrew is “gezer.” But the word can also mean a legal or divine decision. “g’zar din” means literal a legal verdict. The blessing for carrots asks that  our verdict be for good.

Dates: the word for date is “tamar.” If you remove one letter, you get “tam” which means complete, or completed, or finished. The blessing for dates is that our enemies be finished (vanquished).

My favorite is beets, because the pun works in English as well as Hebrew (sort of). The word in Hebrew is “selek.” As a verb it can mean to remove. In the reflexive, “histalek” (it’s the same root hidden in the midst of other letters) it me to be removed or to disperse or to get away or to be eliminated. So the blessing for beets is a hope that our enemies beet it (beat it). Perfect.

The tradition is actually such fun. There’s a kind of seder – with a list of blessings and platters of the symbolic foods. You can make up ne blessings too! Noam Zion of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem suggests such fanciful blessings as a new blessing over peaches expressing the wish for a peachy new year. Try your hand at it.

For a printable list of the blessings, click HERE.

But beware – the extra foods can add a lot of volume to the meal. Years ago, I assigned each guest at my New Year’s dinner a different food to bring. They brought such elaborate foods. Not just pomegranates, but an elaborate dish with pomegranate seeds. A pickled carrot  dish. A cake shaped like an adorable sheep’s head with fluffy white frosting. So much food. By the time we got to the meal with matzah ball soup, brisket, tzimmis, etc., we were stuffed.

Best wishes for a healthy, happy, sweet, and delicious new year.

And . . . Shabbat Shalom.