When it comes to Rosh Hashanah, families of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin–like mine from Calcutta, India–have a secret to share with the rest of the Jewish world: a distinctive New Year’s seder far beyond apples dipped in honey. On the first night of the holiday, we hold a special ceremony at home during which we recite blessings over a variety of foods that symbolize our wishes for the year ahead.
The blessings in this ritual all begin with the words “yehi ratzon” (may it be God’s will), and they all ask for divine gifts of bounty, strength, and peace. The ritual has come to be known as a “seder” (order) because the blessings are recited in a specific order. Ironically, that order varies according to custom and community.
The origins of the ritual date back to the Talmud (Horayot 12a), where Abaye discusses omens that carry significance, and suggests that at the beginning of each new year, people should make a habit of eating the following foods that grow in profusion and so symbolize prosperity: pumpkin, a bean-like vegetable called rubia, leeks, beets, and dates.
It is difficult to trace how the ceremony evolved from that Talmudic mention to its current form. According to cookbook author Gilda Angel (Sephardic Holiday Cooking), “It is told that when the Babylonian scholar Hai Gaon (939-1039) left the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, his students would bring him a basket filled with different fruits over which he recited various blessings and biblical verses.” The Baghdadi rabbi Hakham Yosef Hayyim (1832-1909) mentions the ceremony in his compilation of Jewish law and practice, Ben Ish Hai, extending it to the second night of the holiday as well.
Like the Passover seder, where foods like bitter herbs and matzah symbolize suffering and freedom, at the Rosh Hashanah seder, the foods we eat also become vessels for meaning. Each food symbolizes a good wish for the coming year, and before each food is consumed there is a special blessing to recite, many of which result from puns on the food’s Hebrew or Aramaic name. With each blessing, the mundane aspect of food is garnished with a sense of holiness, poignancy, and even humor.