Rabbi Sasson Natan is getting ready for his family’s seder.
Hold on a minute, you’re probably saying. Even if you’re not Jewish, you know that Passover is in the spring. Even the lesser-known Tu b’Shevat seder, which I wrote about last year in Feed the Spirit, isn’t until February.
Ah yes, but the rabbi, spiritual leader of Keter Torah Synagogue in suburban Detroit, is preparing for the Jewish year’s third seder, the Rosh Hashanah seder, a custom widely practiced by Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews.
Bet you thought the main groups of Jews were Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. There’s one other big dividing line, and it goes back to the 1400s and even earlier.
A capsule Jewish geography
After Rome completely conquered Judea (what is now Israel) in the year 72 CE, Jews scattered throughout the Middle East and beyond. Those who stayed in the Middle East–Palestine (as the Romans renamed Judea, and where there has always been a Jewish presence), Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, India–became known as “Mizrachi” Jews, meaning from the East. A large number of Jews settled in Spain, where they flourished for hundreds of years until Ferdinand and Isabella expelled them all in 1492. This group were known as Sephardi Jews, from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sepharad. After the expulsion, many went to North Africa, joining well established Jewish communities.
Most American Jews are of Ashkenazi heritage, whose ancestors settled in central and eastern Europe. The word comes from the Hebrew word for Germany, Ashkenaz.
Although each country’s Jewish community had its unique customs, those of the Mizrachi and Sephardi communities are similar in many ways, as are those of Ashkenazi Jews, and the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi practices are often striking. Even though they say the same prayers, Sephardi synagogue services sound very different from Ashkenazi services because they use different chants and tunes.
Many Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews also eat symbolic foods at Rosh Hashanah, but I’ve never heard anyone call it a “seder” before.
The practice comes from the Talmud, the collection of Jewish laws and traditions said Rabbi Sasson, a native of Iraq who likes to be called by his first name. On both nights of Rosh Hashanah, after the blessings over wine and bread but before the festive meal, celebrants eat a variety of foods to symbolize their hopes for a good new year.
Seder means “order”
Seder simply means “order;” it’s a way of celebrating a holiday using specific foods with an associated, ritual meaning. Different Sephardi and Mizrachi communities follow different orders and may eat slightly different foods.
In the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. God reviews everything we’ve done in the past year and decides our fate; the decree is sealed 10 days later on Yom Kippur.
At the heart of the Rosh Hashanah seder, said the rabbi, are wishes we request God to grant us in the coming year.
“On Erev Rosh Hashanah (the evening, when the holiday starts), we know that the next day we will go to court before God the judge, and our enemies will come to the court with files and files against us,” said Rabbi Sasson. We use various foods to symbolize our pleas for our enemies to be vanquished and for us to have blessings, he said.
The eight Rosh Hashanah seder foods are called simanim – symbols – because the Hebrew, Aramaic or Arabic word for that food is associated with another Hebrew word that can extend into a wish for the new year. These include:
- Dates, with a wish that our enemies will be consumed.
- Beets, with a wish that our enemies will run away.
- Leeks, with a wish that our enemies be chopped up.
- Long green beans, called “rubia” in Arabic–Rabbi Sasson uses black-eyed peas–with a wish that our merits increase.
- Zucchini or similar squash, with a wish that any evil verdicts against us be ripped up and that our merits be announced before God.
- Pomegranate, with a wish that we be filled with mitzvot (God’s commandments) like a pomegranate is filled with seeds. (Some say the number of seeds in a pomegranate equals the number of mitzvot in the Torah: 613.)
- A fish head or sheep’s head, with a wish that God will make us like the head and not the tail. (If a sheep’s head is used, it also reminds us of the binding of Isaac, which we read about on Rosh Hashanah.)
- Apple and honey, with a wish that God will renew for us a good and sweet year.
The basis for delicious dishes
Often the foods are made into delicious salads or other dishes that serve as appetizers to the main meal. Rabbi Sasson says for the beet portion of the seder, his wife stuffs beet leaves with minced meat, a dish similar to stuffed grape leaves.
The seder leader holds each food in the right hand while explaining the meaning of the food and reciting the blessing for the food and the wish associated with it. The entire ceremony takes only about 15 or 20 minutes, said the rabbi.
Almost all Jews, even those who don’t do a seder ceremony, eat apples and honey as a way of wishing for a good and sweet year to come. Here is a link to a more detailed article about the Rosh Hashanah seder by a woman who was born in Calcutta.
Food puns as symbols
Some have adopted the idea of simanim using languages other than Hebrew and Arabic. Many Ashkenazi Jews eat carrots in place of black-eyed peas, because in Yiddish (for centuries the language of the Ashkenazi Jews) the word for “carrots”–mehren–sounds a lot like the Yiddish word for “more”–mehr.
In fact, says Bessie Krapfman in an article about Rosh Hashanah foods, it’s even better for simanim to be puns from one’s native language. “My sister-in-law is very strict to make certain that there is a stick of celery and some raisins on the table,” says Krapfman. “She always takes the celery together with the raisins and loudly requests of God that he give us all a ‘raise in our salary.’ That is always good for a few laughs, but this is really what we are supposed to do, laughs aside.”
In addition to the raisins and celery (glued together with peanut butter), my son-in-law recently started serving dried fruits wrapped in toilet paper, as a wish that his guests will be “fruitful and multi-ply” (appropriate for those still building their families). I suggested that they might want to puree some cooked peas and serve them with a wish for “whirled peas” (world peace, get it?) Even better, top the peas with a dollop of grits and ask for “whirled peas and hominy.”
What kind of puns can you think of involving food and good wishes?
For your gustatory delight, I offer this recipe for an Israeli carrot, pomegranate and parsley salad, which uses two simanim, carrots and pomegranate. It’s a bit of a bother to pull the leaves off the parsley and get the seeds out of the pomegranate, but after that, it’s a snap to make, and it’s oh-so-pretty as well as tasty. (Helpful hint: quarter the pomegranate and then put the pieces into a large bowl of water before breaking them apart. The seeds will sink to the bottom of the bowl and the pith will float to the top. Skim off the pith, and then drain the seeds in a strainer or colander.)