A Sephardic Rosh Hashanah Seder

A ritual for Rosh Hashanah that goes far beyond dipping apples in honey.

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Preparations for the Big Night

Like other Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews, my shopping list for Rosh Hashanah resembles Abaye's list in the Talmud, with a few added features: fat, juicy, red-skinned pomegranates; glossy, sticky-sweet dates; savory pumpkin; pungent leeks; scallions or chives; foot-long green beans (available in Indian shops); deep-green spinach; and crisp apples. Some families use beetroot leaves instead of spinach, quince instead of apples, and other varieties of beans and gourds.

To prepare these foods to be both beautiful and tasty, dates can be split, stuffed with walnut halves, and arranged in concentric ovals. Apples are traditionally quartered and cooked into spicy pink preserves while retaining their shape, with a drop of red food coloring and whole cloves. Though some families prepare more lavish dishes, I like to keep the foods as close to their fresh goodness as possible. I serve the beans and spinach steamed, the scallions or chives raw, the pomegranate separated into seeds for easy eating, and the pumpkin cooked and mashed with a touch of sugar, spice, and soymilk.

On Rosh Hashanah Night

We begin the seder with a series of biblical verses invoking physical and spiritual blessings. They are repeated a prescribed number of times for mystical reasons

The verses are followed by 2a piyyut, a religious poem, written by Abraham Hazzan Girondi in 13th-century Spain.  Each verse of the poem has a chorus that declares, Tikhleh shanah ve-killeloteha! Let the year end with all its curses! The last line reflects a change in tone: Tahel shanah u-virkhoteha! Let the new year begin with all its blessings!

Then come the blessings. Before eating dates (tamar): May it be your will, God, that enmity will end. (Tamar resembles the word for end, yitamu.)

Before eating pomegranate: May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds.

Before eating apple : May it be Your will, God, to renew for us a good and sweet year.

Before eating string beans (rubia): May it be Your will, God, that our merits increase. (Rubia resembles the word for increase, yirbu.) Instead of string beans, Jews from Libya mix sugar and sesame seeds to symbolize plenty, because the grains are so tiny and numerous that they can't be counted.

Other Blessings

Before eating pumpkin or gourd (k'ra): May it be Your will, God, to tear away all evil decrees against us, as our merits are proclaimed before you. (K'ra resembles the words for "tear" and "proclaimed.")

Before eating spinach or beetroot leaves (selek): May it be Your will, God, that all the enemies who might beat us will retreat, and we will beat a path to freedom (Selek resembles the word for retreat, yistalku).

Before eating leeks, chives, or scallions (karti): May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be cut off. (Karti resembles yikartu, the word for "cut off.") Jews from Persia tear the scallions and throw them behind their backs and over their shoulders. Sometimes they then say the actual names of the enemies they want to destroy.

The seder originally called for a fish or sheep's head to symbolize our wish to be heads, not tails; leaders, not stragglers. The sheep's head (the brains were removed and cooked) also served as a reminder of the ram that saved Isaac's life; we recite the story of the binding of Isaac on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Baghdadi Jews discontinued using the fish because its Hebrew name, dag, sounds like the Hebrew word for worry, d'agah

In lieu of the sheep's head, families that wish to reintroduce a wish for strong leadership might consider a head of lettuce as a vegetarian option.

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Rahel Musleah

Rahel Musleah is an award-winning journalist, speaker, and singer who presents programs on the Jews of India, where she was born. She is the author of Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah (Lerner/Kar-Ben). Please visit her website, www.rahelsjewishindia.com.