Seders aren’t just for Passover

For Rahel Musleah and her family, erev Rosh Hashanah starts with a mini-seder followed by a meal reflecting a mix of Baghdadi, Indian and British culinary traditions. 

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

If you are of Ashkenazi descent, you associate seders with Passover and, perhaps, Tu B’shevat. But among many Sephardic Jews around the world, seders are also a lovely and meaningful part of their Rosh Hashanah tradition. 

I was delighted to learn more about this ancient Jewish custom from two women who emigrated from India and Turkey to America. And just as our Passover seder traditions differ from family to family, so do theirs. 

Rahel Musleah was born in India. Her family moved to Philadelphia in 1964 when she was 6 years old. A journalist, Jewish educator, author, singer and, most recently, a tour guide for those wanting to explore India through a Jewish lens, she lives in New York City.

Musleah told me that the seder tradition dates back 2,000 years to Talmudic times. She explained that Rabbi Abaye, a Talmudic scholar in Babylonia, suggested that at the beginning of the New Year, Jews partake of a series of foods that represent or symbolize prosperity. 

Those foods include pumpkin; rubia, a beanlike vegetable for which Musleah’s family uses Chinese long beans; and dates. Foods that were later added include leeks, scallions or chives; apples or quince; and a sheep’s head in the form of sweetbreads, for which her family substitutes a head of lettuce. Each is served in a small, appetizer-size portion.

“The Rosh Hashanah mini-Seder, which is known as Seder Yehi Ratzon, precedes the meal on erev Rosh Hashanah,” Musleah said. “It emphasizes abundance, strength and peace.”

The word seder means “order” and, just as on Passover, there is an order for this seder. Before eating each of these foods, the family recites a specific blessing that is based on the Hebrew name of the food or on words that sound like that name. 

“Our seder begins with a mystical counting of verses followed by the kiddish,” Musleah said. “The blessings are similar to wordplay. For example, the blessing over a pomegranate, which has the same number of seeds as the number of mitzvoth – 613 – is: ‘May we be as full of good deeds as the pomegranate is of seeds.’ 

“The blessing over the head [of lettuce] is: ‘May it be your will, G-d, that we should be heads and not tails; leaders, not followers.’ The blessing over the apple or quince cooked in honey with cloves, ‘May it be your will, G-d, to renew us for a year as good and sweet as honey.’ And while a few of the blessings ask for the destruction of our enemies, they actually are a way to count your blessings for the year ahead.”

After their seder, Musleah’s family enjoys a festive meal. The menu reflects her Baghdadi, Indian and British culinary traditions. Musleah prepares a variety of vegetable curries, such as bhajee, a curried cauliflower and potato dish, and chickpeas seasoned with cumin and coriander. 

No lemon or anything sour is used in the preparation of the Rosh Hashanah meal.

And while challah is the traditional Ashkenazi bread on Rosh Hashanah, baked in a round shape, in India the custom is to prepare 12 small loaves like the shewbreads that were placed on the altar in the Temple, one for each of the 12 tribes.

“I don’t do that anymore, though,” Musleah said.

Desserts might include a variety of cut-up tropical fresh fruits such as papaya and watermelon, along with ma’amoul, a traditional holiday cookie stuffed with ground pistachios or dates (find Margi’s ma’amoul recipe at’amoul).

After Indian independence and the establishment of Israel, the Jewish population in India dwindled. With only 5,000 Jews living in India today, many of the traditions that were exclusive to that culture are disappearing.

“I feel that I have a responsibility to disseminate and perpetuate the traditions of the Indian and Baghdadi Jewish communities,” Musleah said. “That will also help people understand that Jews are not a monolithic people.”

To learn more about Musleah’s books, her CD and the traditions of Indian Jews, visit her website at Her next tour of Jewish India is  scheduled for Jan. 7-21.


Rachel Bortnick is a Sephardic Jew who grew up speaking Ladino in Izmir, Turkey. She and her husband, Bernie, lived in St. Louis from 1965 to 1982. They now live in Dallas, Texas.

The Rosh Hashanah seder was an annual family tradition, Bortnick said. 

“I remember there being a lot of food on the table,” she said with a laugh, “though unlike Passover, there was no biblical story, and the blessings and various seder foods were incorporated into our festive meal.

“There was a blessing for each of the seder foods. A blessing for the chard, the leeks, the zucchini squash, the whole fish served with its head, the pomegranates and the apple compote or apple jam for a sweet year ahead.”

Her family called this ritual los y’irasones because each blessing began with the words yehi ratson mi lefaneha (may it be thy will). Bortnick  explained that each item of food was imbued with metaphorical meaning, as reflected in the blessing for that food.

“For example, the head of the fish was always given to the head of the family, and the accompanying blessing intoned that we should always be ‘ahead’ and not ‘behind,’ ” she said. “For the pomegranate, the blessing incorporated the wish that we be fruitful and multiply like the many seeds of the pomegranate.”

Unlike the Rosh Hashanah seders of India, the Sephardic traditions of Turkish Jews incorporate these foods into the actual meal. Bortnick  recalls that the vegetables her mother prepared for los y’irasones were made into fritadas (frittatas), similar to a crustless quiche, with a fritada for each vegetable. So, too, everything on the table had to be white or of a light color, and none of the food could be spicy or bitter.

To represent the wish for a sweet and bright year, there was a bowl of sugar rather than salt and pepper shakers. The desserts, which also had to be light in  color, included pastries made with marzipan and baklava. Though normally made with dark walnuts, the Rosh Hashanah baklava is instead made with blanched (skinless white) almonds. 

And unlike the challah in Ashkenazi tradition, Bortnick’s mother baked a sweet ring-shape bread sprinkled with sesame seeds, which are also white. All of the seder foods symbolize the wish for a bright and sweet future.


Musleah shared some of her family’s Sephardic Indian recipes with me, three of which are below. In addition, Bortnick offered a recipe for an authentic zucchini fritada.

Whatever your Rosh Hashanah traditions may be, I hope that the year ahead brings joy, happiness and good health to you and your family.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of five. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes comments and suggestions at [email protected].

Bhajee Vegetable Curry


2 tbsp. mild curry paste (I use Patak’s)

2 tbsp. tomato paste

1 tbsp. panch puran spice (5 spice mix 

   available in Indian shops, optional)

4 tbsp. fresh cilantro, chopped

½ c. water

3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed

1 cauliflower, broken into florets

3 carrots, peeled and sliced

½ lb. frozen peas


Put curry paste, tomato paste and 2 tbsp. cilantro in large nonstick pot on medium-low flame. Add potatoes and ½ c. water. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Add cauliflower and carrots and continue cooking for about 20 minutes, or until vegetables can be pierced with a fork. 

Add peas to mixture and cook 10 minutes more until tender.

Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice pilau.

(You can substitute almost any vegetables for those suggested in the recipe.)

Make 8-10 servings.

Pilau (Rice)


2 c. Basmati rice, rinsed and drained

3 c. water

1 tbsp. oil

1 tsp. salt

2 cinnamon sticks

6 cloves

6 cardamom pods

1 bay leaf

Pinch of saffron, or ¼ tsp. turmeric


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In an ovenproof pot, sauté spices (except saffron) and salt in oil until the cardamom pods start to pop, a couple of minutes. Add rice and sauté a minute more until the grains are coated with oil.

Add the water and saffron (if using) and bring to a boil. Remove pot from flame and transfer to oven. Bake for 20 minutes, or until all of the water is absorbed. 

Serve garnished with kishmish badam (see recipe).

Makes 8-10 servings.

Crockpot Short Ribs with Pomegranate Molasses 

Yield: 6 servings  

Short on time but still want to make a beautiful main dish? Break out your slow cooker. These short ribs taste like you were slaving over a hot stove all day, when in fact you just threw it all in your slow cooker and then poured yourself a big glass of wine. The pomegranate molasses adds a traditional, sweet flavor perfect for the New Year. For an extra festive presentation, garnish the short ribs with colorful pomegranate seeds and fresh parsley.    

This recipe can easily be doubled or tripled for a larger crowd. I do not recommend skipping the step of browning the meat and veggies before putting into your slow cooker. It will add depth to the meat and vegetables and the overall richness of the sauce. 


3 ½ pounds short ribs on the bone 

½ teaspoon cinnamon 

¼ teaspoon dried coriander 

½ teaspoon sweet paprika 

Pinch red pepper flakes 

1 or 2 teaspoons salt 

½ teaspoon pepper 

Olive oil 

1 onion, diced 

3 garlic cloves, minced 

3 ribs of celery, diced 

1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste 

1 ½ cups chicken, beef or veal stock 

1 ½ cups red wine 

3 tablespoons soy sauce 

1/3 cup pomegranate molasses, plus extra for serving 

Fresh parsley (optional) 

Pomegranate seeds (optional)   


Mix together the cinnamon, coriander, paprika, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper in a small bowl.  

Place the short ribs on a large plate and rub the spice mix all over the ribs, covering all sides. Allow to sit in the fridge covered in plastic wrap a few hours if you have the time.  

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Sear the short ribs on all sides until brown. You will want to do this in batches depending on how many ribs you make.  

When all the ribs have been seared, place them into the bottom of your slow cooker.    

Drain off all oil in pan, except for around 2 or 3 tablespoons. Add onion and celery to the pan and sauté until translucent, about 4 to 6 minutes. Add garlic and continue to cook. After a few minutes, add 1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste and cook until the tomato has incorporated into the vegetables.   

Add the cooked vegetables to the slow cooker with the stock, wine, soy sauce and pomegranate molasses. Set your slow cookerfor 6 hours on high and allow to cook, ensuring the short ribs are completely covered with liquid.  

When short ribs are finished cooking, garnish an extra drizzle of pomegranate molasses, fresh chopped parsley and pomegranate seeds, if desired. 

Roasted Broccoli With Garlic 

Yield: 6 servings 

Broccoli is an easy and accessible side dish to make all year. Throw it in the oven, let it caramelize and you have a crunchy, slightly sweet vegetable that will have your guests raving. Extra points: It’s super easy and requires almost no prep time.   


2 large or 3 medium heads of broccoli 

5-6 garlic cloves, left unpeeled 

Salt and pepper 

Olive oil  


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  

Remove stems from broccoli. Cut broccoli into medium florets. Spread on a large baking sheet, or 2 medium baking sheets so as not to overcrowd while cooking.  

Add garlic cloves and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle generously with olive oil.  

Roast for 35-40 minutes, until just starting to get crispy and caramelized. 

Fritadas de Calabaza: Zucchini Fritada 

(Recipe adapted from Sephardic blog,  


2 lbs. medium zucchini 

6 oz. feta cheese, crumbled 

2 tbsp. olive oil, plus more for oiling bowl 

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, stems removed and leaves chopped 

1 bunch fresh mint, stems removed and leaves chopped 

¾ tsp. coarse kosher salt, plus more to taste  

¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste 

4 eggs 

¼ c. matzo meal, plus more as needed 

¼ c. grated yellow cheddar cheese, for sprinkling 


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  

Trim and peel the zucchini. Grate zucchini onto a clean kitchen towel. Gather sides of towel together and, over the sink, squeeze out the excess moisture. 

Transfer zucchini to a large bowl and stir in the crumbled feta cheese, olive oil, finely chopped parsley and finely chopped mint. Add salt and pepper, to taste. 

Add the matzo meal and eggs to bowl and, using your hands, mix together until thoroughly combined. 

Lightly oil a 1 quart glass baking dish. Empty zucchini mixture into dish and smooth the top with a spatula. Place dish in oven and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until the mixture is firm and the top is lightly browned.  

Sprinkle grated yellow cheese over top of fritada, and continue to bake for about 15 minutes, or until cheese is melted and just beginning to color.  

Makes 6-8 servings.