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Rosh HaShanah Food Traditions: What's on the Table?

Rosh HaShanah Food Traditions: What's on the Table?


The Rosh Hashanah Seder finds its earliest written source in a peculiar menu whose symbolic significance is not revealed...and your dinner menu can include many of these items that can draw on our earliest history and connect us to our hopes and dreams for our present and our future.

"For a good omen on Rosh HaShanah one should make it a habit to eat squash [like pumpkin], legumes [like string beans], kartei (leeks), spinach and dates.”

Talmud BT Keritot 6a

Tunisian Jews often “publish” a French and Arabic menu called the “Honey Page” for it lists all the special foods to be eaten and to be used to symbolize New Year’s wishes and of course it is headed by the word “Devash – honey.” Then the list often continues with figs, dates, pomegranates, apples, and the head of a ram or a fish. Jews from other lands add carrots and beets, but obviously any food will do as long as you have a creatively corny sense of humor and a willingness to share your greatest fears and hopes.

Many families add a conversation following each of these meditations. Prompts are shared below.

Apples and Honey

Y’hi ratzon milfanech, shetichadesh aleinu shana tova u’metukah.

May it be God’s will we will be renewed for a sweet new year.

With this blessing, we also recite the blessing over apples:

Baruch Ata, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, borei pri haetz.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has created the fruit of the tree.

What is new about you, for you, with you in this new year?
We ask that God will “renew” us. How might you imagine being renewed in this coming year? How might you help this to happen?
This is the most commonly known symbol and food for Rosh HaShanah. Why do you think it has become so popular? What might you substitute in its place if you were to reinvent the ritual?

Challah

For dipping challah (into honey) we might use this Hassidic wish:

May God create yeast in your soul, causing you to ferment, and mature, to rise, elevate, to your highest possibilities, to reach your highest self.

How have you matured or “fermented” this year? What is something that you have accomplished that you can celebrate with us?
What are your hopes for “fermentation” for this coming year? What is something you hope to accomplish?

A Head

Traditionally the head of a lamb or a carp is the occasion for a blessing (though vegetarians might perhaps substitute a head of cabbage or a head of lettuce):

Y’hi ratzon sheh- ni-hi-yeh l’Rosh v’lo l’zanav

May it be God’s will that we will be a head and not a tail.

What does this mean?
How might you interpret the blessing?
Would you rather be a head or a tail? Why?
How might this food be connected to the Jewish calendar?

Spinach or beets

In Hebrew, spinach or beets are traditionally called seleck, which can also mean “to remove decisively.” They elicit this New Year’s wish:

Y’hi ratzon sheh- yis-talku soneinu.

May it be God’s will that our enemies be removed from our presence.

When this was written, who do you think it could have referred to?
What are different ways we can understand “enemies”? Who might it refer to today?
Tell a story from our Jewish past that illustrates how our enemies were “removed decisively.”

Pomegranate

Pomegranates, filled with numerous sweet seeds, traditionally recall the 613 commandments or mitzvot found in the Torah. The blessing is:

Y’hi ratzon sheh-ni-hi-yeh malei mitzvot ka-rimon

May it be God’s will that our lives may be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is filled with seeds.

What is a mitzvah that you hope to fulfill this year?
Here, seeds symbolize mitzvot. What else might they symbolize?
What does the performance of a mitzvah do for you, the one who performs the mitzvah? How does it feel? What inspires us to do mitzvot?

Carrots and Squash

These root vegetables or nightshades, which are called respectively, Gezer (decree) or Kara (tear up or read) are used for:

Yehi ratzon milfanecha she-yikara roa gezar dinneinu, v’yikaru lfaneacha zakiyoteinu

May it be God’s will that the evil decrees aginst us be torn up and our good merits be read out before You.

To yourself: If you could choose one thing that would be wiped from your memory this year, what would it be?
To yourself: What is something that you wished you’d done differently this year? If you could do it all over again, would you do it the same, or different?
What is a “good merit” about you that perhaps no one knows about?

The Power of the Pun:

Inventing Your own Seder Rosh HaShanah

Let us suggest some contemporary “green grocer” wishes punning in English on the shape, name or color of these fruits and vegetables:

Dates: May it be God’s will that all my single friends have many dates this year.
Tomatoes or Hot Peppers: May it be God’s will that this be a juicy/red-hot New Year.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg (CLAL 1977) suggested:

Peaches – May we have a “peachy” year!
Brussels or other sprouts– May our good fortune “sprout”!

includes some excerpts from Noam Zion, The Rosh HaShanah Seder