Come New Year’s eve, what do you wish for? A year as sweet as apples in honey is one typical answer. But Jewish tradition offers many other symbolic options. Talmudic era scholars came up with a list of very specific requests to make from God, laying the groundwork for the Rosh Hashanah seder, which Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews have been conducting for hundreds of years.
The roots of the Rosh Hashanah seder can be found in the Babylonian Talmud circa 300 CE. It was built around symbolic foods chosen for their Aramaic names, which are word plays on the accompanying blessings. The five foods included squash, black eyed pea, leek, Swiss chard and dates.
The Aramaic word for squash, karaa, uses the same sounds as the Hebrew verbs “rip apart” and “read.” The accompanying blessing is double, that the evil of our verdicts be ripped, and our merits be read before God. As with the other foods, the exact meaning of “karaa” is unclear, and different Jewish communities gave the Aramaic word different interpretations, as pumpkin or squash.
Sephardi families serve sweet roasted pumpkin burikitas (small pastries) or fried pumpkin sprinkled with sugar. In some communities, families would prepare a sweet pumpkin jam, while others in the levant would serve the light skinned, Middle Eastern zucchini.
Black-eyed pea or haricots verts are called rubia or lubia in Aramiac. These words contain the same sounds, respectively, as “many” and “heart” in Hebrew. The accommodating blessing asks that our merits become many and that God hearten us.
Haricot verts can be served simply roasted, or cooked in tomatoes. In Egypt, the word rubia was used for fava bean, but since fresh fava beans were not in season during Rosh Hashanah, Egyptian Jews cooked dried beans. Yemenite Jews used fenugreek for this blessing.
Leek, karti in Aramaic, relates to the verb “cut” in Hebrew. The blessing asks that our enemies, haters, and those who wish evil upon us be cut down.
Swiss chard, silk in Aramaic, relates to the Hebrew verb “depart,” and is used to invoke the blessing that our enemies, haters and those who wish evil upon us shall depart. In some communities, beets (selek) are used instead.
And the date, tamar, shares sounds with the verb “finish” (tam) in Hebrew and comes with the wish that there come an end to our enemies, haters and those who wish evil upon us. (Garlic, thum in Arabic, is used in some communities for the same blessing).
Feel a little uncomfortable with an evening based on wishing evil upon your enemies? So did Rabbi Menachem Hameiri, who lived in Provence in Medieval times. He claimed the meaning of the last three blessings was fighting our own prejudice and bad intentions, not our actual enemies.
The dishes prepared to accompany these blessings were Sephardi leek latkes (recipe below), made with or without ground beef and served with lemon wedges; and Swiss chard latkes. In some houses, both leeks and chard would simply be fried or sautéed.
Dates would be served plain. In the Levant, Jews used the yellow, fresh dates that are the sweetest dates available once ripe, and are right in season for the High Holidays.
Jewish scholars were not always happy about seeing signs in foods, which which they believed was sorcery, but they concluded that these signs encouraged people to pray. So let’s continue.
Throughout the centuries, the idea of the Rosh Hashanah seder gained momentum, and more symbolic foods and traditions were added.
The book of Nehemiah recounts that after building the second temple, Nehemiah and Ezra read the Torah to the sons of Israel and when noticing the people were weeping, they urged them to "go eat fat foods and drink sweet drinks,” an order that never had to be repeated again. And so they did.
Jews in Babylon used to cook fat meat and cook sweet sauces for Rosh Hashanah, to make sure the coming year would be sweet.
In Medieval France, Jews had red apples for the holiday, and in Provence, they served white grapes. They cooked ram head and lungs, to be set “at the head, and not at the tail” (Deuteronomy, 28:13) and to have a light year. Over the years, ram head turned into fish head, and eventually simply any fish dish.
The Ashkenazi custom of dipping apples in honey is mentioned in the texts of Rabbi Jacob Ben Asher from the 1300s. The blessing accompanying the dish asked God to renew a year good and sweet like honey.
Then came the tradition of eating a first-of-the-season fruit, which broadened the holiday table to include etrog and quince.
Pomegranate was added in the Middle Ages as well, to symbolize the blessing of being filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate is filled with seeds.
Ashkenazi Jews added carrots, “ma’rin” in Yiddish, which can also mean increase, in order to ask that merits be increased. Some say the sliced carrots in a dish like tsimmes look like gold coins, making this a way of asking for wealth. Other symbols of wealth, of fruitfulness and of multiplying in number include cooked beans in Ashkenazi tradition and sesame seeds for Yemenite Jews.
The Rosh Hashanah seder has gained popularity with Israelis in recent years among Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi alike (not to mention mixed families like mine). Newspapers print the blessings before the holiday and a special Rosh Hashanah seder plate, similar to the Passover seder plate, is now available at gift stores.
Does this give you enough to work with when planning your Rosh Hashanah dinner? Between the leeks, Swiss chard, pomegranate, carrots, sesame, fish and ram’s head, a truly meaningful and delicious menu can emerge.
See the full list of prayers here, and print them for each of your guests.
How to put together your Rosh Hashanah seder:
Swiss chard latkes – Get the recipe here.
Dates - Simply serve plain dates, or if you can get fresh yellow dates (available in September at many Middle Eastern stores) you can chop them into green salads.
Haricots verts - Mix with a little olive oil, sprinkle with salt and roast in the oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes or until tender.
Squash - The traditional Mizrahi and Sephardi way is to fry chunks of pumpkin or squash and serve it dipped in sugar. You could also mix butternut squash chunks with honey, olive oil and kosher salt and roast in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about an hour, or until tender.
Pomegranate - You can either serve the seeds plain or try this recipe for pomegranate and roasted beet salad (two blessings in one dish) or this recipe for tilapia and pomegranate ceviche (again, two blessings in one, the fish and pomegranate).
Apple Jam - An Iraqi tradition. In a large bowl, mix 2 pounds of red apples with 1 pound sugar and 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom. Cover and let sit overnight. The next day, transfer to a pot, bring to boil, remove foam, and cook on low heat until very tender. Add juice of one lemon at the end. Keep in the fridge.
Leek latkes - Excellent with or without meat. Those are hard to resist, especially hot straight out of the pan, so hide them well until dinner.
6 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, chopped
1 1/2 medium potatoes (about 9 ounces together), peeled and diced into 2-inch cubes
Leaves from 4 stems flat-leaf parsley
2 large eggs
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs or matzo meal
1/2 lb. ground beef
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for frying
Lemon wedges to serve
1. Bring salted water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat.
2. Add the leek and potato pieces to the saucepan. After the water returns to a boil, cover the saucepan and cook the vegetables for 10 minutes, until just tender.
3. Drain the vegetables in a colander, then run cool tap water on them so they can cool down enough for you to squeeze out as much water as possible from the leeks.
4. Working in 2 batches, transfer the vegetables to the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
5. Finely chop the parsley and add to the bowl, along with the eggs, beef (if using), bread crumbs, sea salt and black pepper; mix well.
6. Line a baking sheet with paper towels. Heat 2 large skillets over medium-high heat. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of each skillet.
7. When the oil is quite hot, drop about five large spoonfuls into each of the skillets, using the back of the spoon or a spatula to flatten them slightly. Cook for a few minutes, until browned on the edges, then turn over and cook for a few minutes, watching them closely, just until they are cooked through. Transfer carefully to the lined baking sheet to drain slightly. Repeat to use up all of the leek mixture, adding oil to the skillets as needed.
8. Cut the reserved lemon half into wedges. Serve the latkes warm or at room temperature with lemon wedges on the side.