Rosh Hashanah Seder has a menu with a meaning

Are you ready for the seder?

No not THAT seder. Although it is far less famous than the one in the spring, Rosh Hashanah does have its own traditional seder. And like the one on Passover, the New Year’s Seder is centered around food and is rich in symbolism. Today, a look at the Rosh Hashanah Seder.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

The seder revolves around several foods whose connection to Rosh Hashanah may be not be immediately apparent: carrots, leeks, black-eyed peas, dates, beets, gourds and even a sheep’s head. The connection? These foods have names in Hebrew (or Yiddish) which are reminiscent of — or even puns of — good omens for the Jewish people. For example, before we eat carrots at the Rosh Hashanah table, we traditionally ask “that our merits increase” because carrot in Yiddish is mehren, which can also mean to increase. []

The Hebrew word for gourd, kara, sounds like the Hebrew words for both tearing and reading. As that vegetable is eaten, we recite this prayer: “May it be the will of our Heavenly Father that any bad decree be torn up and that our merits be read before You.” []

And what about that sheep’s head? Bessie Krapfman explains why we eat a sheep’s head (or alternatively a fish head). “The purpose of having a ‘head’ on your table is not to turn your stomach, but that we should use it as a ‘simmon’ (or sign); we pray to God that we be the head and not the tail.” []

Rabbi Yehudah Prero suggests these foods can actually trigger a deeper psychological reaction appropriate to this time of year. By eating these foods “a person realizes that now is the time he needs to be asking for these good things, because now is the time he is being judged. As soon as the person realizes that now is the time that he is being judged, he will realize that omens alone will not be enough for his salvation, and that repentance is needed.” []

Although some sites emphasize that the Rosh Hashanah Seder is quite fluid, others present a formalized ritual in English [] and in Hebrew. [] In order to set the proper tone, the Jewish Agency site suggests that certain verses be recited many times before the Kiddush, such as: “Or zaru’a latzadik, uleyishrei-lev simchah — Light (of Creation) shall shine for the righteous (in the World to Come) and happiness for the upright.” [17 times] []

The most elaborate seder that I found was created by Noam Zion of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. In addition to explaining the foods, he also recommends readings and discussions that can take place around the New Year’s table:

— Today is the birthday of the world. What aspect of the Creation most impresses you?

— Name one mitzvah you are proud of having participated in over the past year.

— Today is the beginning of new possibilities. What impossible dream would you pursue if you had enough money to take off for a year from your present occupation? []

Gilda Angel has taken these symbolic foods and performed some gastronomic magic. She crafted a menu from them. Her Turkish-inspired Rosh Hashanah meal includes Keftes de Prasa (leek croquettes), Lubiya (black-eyed peas), Pollo con Susam (sesame-seed chicken), Borekas de Calabaza (pumpkin turnovers) and Tishpishti (honey-nut cake). [] Apparently Angel didn’t deign to include ALL the traditional foods in her meal, so I’ve saved you the trouble and tracked down a classic recipe for Sheep’s Head Soup. []

Although Jewish practices are steeped in ancient tradition, a Rosh Hashanah seder site I visited recommended a contemporary makeover. Here’s one modern addition for your table: “Take some lettuce, half a raisin, and some celery, and pray ‘Let us have a raise in salary.'” []

Mark Mietkiewicz is a Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the Jewish Internet. He can be reached at [email protected].