Thinking about Rosh Hashanah: Old Practices, New Practices

I was raised in a culturally Jewish family. That means my brothers celebrated their bar mitzvahs. We observed the main holidays. My parents, however, were fundamentally opposed to paying for tickets to attend High Holy Day Services. So we rarely went the synagogue.

Constant Companion and I are the only ones among our collected siblings to marry a Jewish partner. We have been fairly active members of the Jewish communities in which we lived while essentially remaining cultural Jews. Thus, we are the source of Jewish information. Our involvements have faded away in the past few years.

Among the many identities I’ve revealed in these pages is that of educator, at times a Jewish educator. One semester was spent teaching Jewish history at a local university. At the Jewish museum I headed in Tulsa, educator for both Jewish and non-Jewish school groups and adults was one of the many hats I wore. Director of Education and Public Programs at the local Jewish museum brought our family to our present resting spot over twenty years ago.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is almost upon us again. For many cultural Jews, it’s celebrated with apples and honey, round challah with raisins, and honey cake, all harbingers of a sweet New Year that originated in Eastern European tradition.* The Greek Jewish/Askenazi home I grew up in also included pomegranates, a fruit filled with lots of symbolism.

*If you’d like to read more, see http://mochajuden.com/?p=4853

In many Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish communities, Rosh Hashanah traditions at the  festive dinner include blessings over certain seasonal, symbolic foods (simanim), known as Yehi Ratzones (may it be God’s will). The simanim are usually dates, leeks, beet/beet greens/spinach, pumpkin/squash, black-eyed peas, pomegranate, and a fish head.

Each prayer asks for divine gifts of bounty, strength, and peace.The individual culinary prayers respectively include word plays or puns upon the Aramaic or Hebrew. Being the New Year, several ask the we be measured in the Book of Life, for good deeds to be recalled and merits to increase.

Date, tamar in Hebrew, is similar to the word tam, meaning “to end or consume.” The hope is that animosity against the Jews will end in the New Year as the blessing directs that our enemies and those who desire to harm us be consumed. Dates are also one of the seven species of the ancient land of Israel.

The Hebrew and Aramaic word for leek, karti, is similar to the Hebrew word korat which means “to cut off.” The blessing over leeks asks “that our enemies be cut off, as well as those who desire to do us harm.”

Beets, or beet greens, spinach, and Swiss chard are silka in Aramaic or selek in Hebrew, both are related to the Hebrew word silek, “to depart.” The blessing over this vegetable asks that, that our enemies and those who desire to harm us disappear.

Three symbolic aspects connected to Rosh Hashanah and the yehi ratsones are associated with pumpkin. It is round like the wish for the New Year to be never ending nor beginning. It is golden, foretelling riches in the New Year. Finally, in Aramaic is pumpkin is karaa, “to rip apart,” and kraa, in Hebrew means “to tear.” The blessing over pumpkin is “May our good deeds be called out before the Lord at the time of judgement.”

 “Ruviah” or “rubia” is often identified as fenugreek and sometimes black-eyed peas or green beans. The Hebrew word rubia resembles the word for increase, yirbu. In Baghdad, it was referred to as “luviah.” Since it was similar to the Hebrew words “rav,” and “lev,” meaning heart, the word “ut-labevenu” (meaning “and purify us”) was added. 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.

The pomegranate, another of the Biblical seven species, is a particularly symbolic fruit with several meanings. The proliferation of seeds leads to the association with fertility. They are also considered to be equal to the 613 mitzvot or commandments in the Torah. The blessing on this fruit asks “that our merits increase as the seeds of the pomegranate.”

It is unclear if the fish or sheep’s head is part of the repertoire of yehi ratsones or part of the festive meal. Both are frequent main courses at the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah dinners; in general. “Rosh” Hashanah is Hebrew for the “head” of the year. Serving the head also ensures that the head of the household take the lead to move ahead in the New Year and not be a follower. The fish is also a symbol of abundance and fertility. The blessing associated with this food is, “May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, that our merits may multiply as the fish in the sea.”

The sheep’s head is a symbolic reminder of the akedah, the binding of Isaac which in Jewish tradition took place on the second day of the New Year. It represents the ram which Abraham sacrificed in the place of his son.

Eating these symbolic foods as part of the festive Rosh Hashanah meal in Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jewish homes is meant to help ensure a good New Year.

In the past few years, the internet at this season has been filled with information about a so-called Rosh Hashanah seder. I believe this recently constructed practice is a way of reshaping the Yehi Ratsones tradition and bringing it into more Jewish homes. The seder, as celebrated annually at Pesach, is marked by an “order” in which the rituals are enacted. This new practice has come to be known as a seder because the blessings are now recited in a prescribed order. In addition, new meanings for each of the simanim have been constructed, updating the practice in contemporary terms: dates for peace, leeks for friendship, beetroot leaves for freedom, pumpkin for happiness, green beans for prosperity, pomegranate for miztvot, head of lettuce for leadership. I guess the fish and especially the sheep’s head is much too graphic. Some authors have even capitalized and commercialized this new practice by publishing RH Seder guides and cookbooks; special accoutrements are now sold in synagogue gift shops.

The Yehi Ratzones blessings are not a practice neither I (from a “mixed” marriage) nor Ashkenazi Constant Companion knew in our homes; we do not practice them in our home. Well, except when Israeli friends join us. Many of the elements of these symbolic foods are incorporated in the traditional foods that make up the rich array of dishes I prepare for our annual Rosh Hashanah dinners. A whole baked fish is our usual first night dinner entree. A few years ago, I made traditional Sephardic prassa keftedes, leek patties (see 9/30/19 post). I’m still struggling with this year’s menu!

Seven Biblical Species

Two cookbooks I’ve enjoyed for many years if you want to explore and cook:

Gilda Angel. Sephardic Holiday Cooking: Recipes and Traditions. Decalogue Books, 1986.

Claudia Roden. The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York. Knopf, 1996.

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