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A Seder for the New Year?

August 23, 2023


Rabbi Nathan Martin

There is an interesting energy around the observance of Rosh Hashanah. One the one hand this is clearly a moment of solemnity, of “Yom Ha-Din,” the Day of Judgment, where we find ourselves at the beginning of the aseret yemei teshuva, the ten days of repentance, when we recommit to the work of healing rifts in our relationships and becoming our better selves.

Relatedly, Rosh Hashanah, is also historically understood as a divine coronation ceremony — shofar “trumpets” and all —when at one of our most sacred calendrical moments of the 1st day of the 7th month (7 being a sacred number in Judaism), God assumes sovereignty and begins “ruling” for another cycle of the year. (The ancient Babylonians had a similar coronation festival at the same time!).

But there is also another aspect of Rosh Hashanah that is more celebratory. It is the holiday of “hayom harat olam,” today the world is born, a moment when we celebrate the creation of the world and its fullness. We turn to the food - the sweetness of apples and honey or honey cake  - to hopefully ingest sweet blessings for the year.

But these are not the only foods that have found their way to the Rosh Hasshanah meal. There has emerged a tradition of a Rosh Hashanah Seder where a variety of symbolic foods - all based on Hebrew and Aramaic wordplay on their names - that are eaten that embody our hopes for the year. It’s a tradition that likely dated back from Talmudic times where Rabbi Abaye said, “A person should always be accustomed to seeing these on Rosh Hashanah: Squash, and fenugreek, leeks, and chard, and dates, as each of these grows quickly and serves as a positive omen for one’s actions during the coming year. (BT Horayot 12a)” Today’s Rosh Hashanah seders - based on Sefardic tradition - might include a sampling of foods such as:

  • Hebrew dates (tamar) - based on the word play that it will be the Divine will “she’yiTAmu oyveinu v’soneinu v’chol M’vaskshei Ra’ateinu,” that there will be an end to our enemies and those that hate us. 
  • String beans (rubia) - based on the hope, she-yiRBU zechuyoteinu, that our merits shall increase
  • Leeks (karti) and beets or Swiss chard (silka) - based on the hope she’yiKARTU ve-yiStaLKU oyveinu, that the Divine will cut off and disperse our enemies
  • Pomegranate - which is said to have 613 seeds, equal to the number of mitzvoth, and our hope that our lives be filled with mitzvoth in the coming year.
  • And, of course, the fish head (rosh) (or perhaps a “head” of lettuce or cauliflower) - hoping that our “head” of the year, Rosh Hashanah, is one in general of blessing. 

While we may not connect deeply with each and every symbolic food — and there are some that may not even be part of regular palette — I love this tradition of connecting to our culinary traditions on Rosh Hashanah as an additional dimension to our Rosh Hashanah celebration. While there are more structured outlines for a Rosh Hashanah seder (see here or ritualwell for examples), this can also be an opportunity to create your own ritual moment around your table, perhaps inviting people to share about the sweetness they want to cultivate, a mitzvah they want to pursue, or yes even a blessing to keep harm and evil far away from us.

Together, these various elements of meaning for Rosh Hashana — elements of judgment, coronation, and blessings/protection/celebration, create a kaleidoscope of meaning that allows us to experience different aspects of the holiday depending on where we find ourselves in any given year. They help us to blend both the somber and the exuberant into the right combination that allows us to experience both more fully.

Sending you all wishes of awe and sweetness for the coming year!

Shanah Tovah.

Fri, June 21 2024 15 Sivan 5784