Who would have thought at Pesach that come Rosh Hashanah we would still be living with the restrictions imposed by the COVID pandemic? But here we are, six months later; friends and family are unlikely to travel for the holidays, we can’t invite guests for dinner, and most synagogues are still closed or severely limiting the number of congregants allowed in the sanctuary.
But the Jewish holidays approach and we should celebrate and honor them. I suggest that this is the time to experiment with an elaborate meal for the people in your household. Many Sephardic and Mizrahi communities follow a tradition to include several specific symbolic foods in their festive Rosh Hashanah meal. This tradition, a Rosh Hashanah seder, is called Seder Yehi Ratzon, “May it be God’s will,” because we pray for God’s gifts. The select foods carry symbolic meaning based either on their attributes or on wordplay related to their Hebrew translation.
Like Pesach Haggadahs, books to guide you through the Rosh Hashanah seder are available online. The items can be laid out on a seder plate – you can use any dish, but Rosh Hashanah seder plates do exist. We found one last fall in a Judaica store in Paris. In addition, I devised a menu that includes all the foods.
The symbolic foods for the seder are: Dates, Pomegranate, Apples and Honey, Green Beans, Pumpkin, Beets, Leeks, Scallions or Chives, and a Fish Head or lettuce. Each food represents a prayer for something based either on its attributes – apples are sweet, so we pray for a sweet year, or based on some wordplay or pun in Hebrew. Some of them seem like a stretch and all of them make much more sense if you are fluent in Hebrew, but don’t let the language get in your way of enjoying this 2,000-year old ritual.
We begin with Dates and a prayer for peace. The Hebrew word for date is tamar; the associated wordplay uses yitamu (end), which has the same letters. We pray, “May our enemies and haters and all who seek to do us evil, be ended.”
With the Pomegranate, we pray for mitzvot; hoping to be as full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds. Tradition says that pomegranates contain 613 seeds, which is the number of commandments in the Torah.
Apples and Honey are familiar. We pray for a sweet new year.
Rubia is Hebrew for Green Beans; it sounds like yirbu, which means increase. So, with the Beans we pray for prosperity.
Pumpkin brings a prayer for happiness, using wordplay around the Hebrew word for pumpkin, k’ra, and a similar word, kara, which can be spelled two ways to mean either “tear away” or “proclaimed.” “May it be your will to tear away all evil decrees against us as our merits are proclaimed to You.”
With the Beets we pray for freedom or for our enemies to “beat a retreat,” a play on the word for beet, selek, and yistalku, which means to retreat.
Hebrew for Leek is karti, which sounds like yikartu, the word for “cut off.” So, we pray for our enemies to be cut off; we hope for the blessing of friendship.
And finally, a Head. Traditionally, a Fish Head or Sheep Head was used, as both were part of the festive meal. Some people prepare a whole fish, with the head on. More recently, a Head of Lettuce stands in. On my table, we use a fish head made from polymer clay. Regardless, we pray to be at the Head and not the tail; to be leaders, not followers.
Here is the menu: Pumpkin Hummus with Silan, Sweet Challah with Apples and Honey, Tunisian Fish Cakes with Spicy Aioli, Green Herb Salad with Roasted Beets, Chicken dish of your choice, Green Beans Almondine, Rice with Dates, Figs and Pomegranate.
For dessert, we add another tradition to eat a fruit that is either new to you or new to the season. We say the Shechecheyanu prayer the first time we do anything, so for the new year, we eat a new fruit. Most grocery stores now have selections of unusual or exotic fruits that are fun to try. Consider lychee, golden kiwi, or fresh coconut. Enjoy a sweet fruit salad with any cake for dessert.