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Date the New Year with the Symbolic Foods of a Seder

Many interfaith families find that by making the holidays their own–adapting them in ways that fit their own family’s needs–they can create new traditions for their family that work for them.

What follows is a description of how my family, which originates in India, celebrates Rosh Hashanah. If you find beauty and meaning in this tradition, as I do, you may wish to add it to your own celebration.

Tahel shanah u-virkhoteha! Let the new year begin with all its blessings…

With this hearty declaration, the Rosh Hashanah feast begins in my home. But, like many families of Sephardic (North African and Hispanic) and Mizrahi (Eastern) origin, we don’t actually eat the meal until we have recited many blessings in the context of a special Rosh Hashanah seder.

The seder consists of symbolic foods that represent our wishes for the new year. It is called a “seder yehi ratzon (may it be God’s will),” because we ask God to guide us and provide us with bounty, strength and peace in the year ahead. Many of the foods are blessed with puns on their Hebrew names that turn into hopes that our enemies will be destroyed.

The Talmudic origins of the seder date back to a discussion by Rabbi Abaye about omens that carry significance (Horayot 12a). He suggested that at the beginning of each new year, people should make a habit of eating the following foods that grow in profusion and are therefore symbolic of prosperity: pumpkin, a bean-like vegetable called rubia, leeks, beets and dates. Jewish communities throughout the world have adapted this practice, creating seders of their own.

This version of the seder was conducted in Calcutta, where my family is from. Though it delays the main meal by a few extra minutes, your Rosh Hashanah celebration will be enriched, infused with the blessings of life none of us should take for granted.

Arrange seven bowls on a platter and fill them with the following fruits and vegetables: dates; pomegranates; apples in honey; string beans; pumpkin; spinach and scallions. The original custom calls for a fish head to represent fertility, as well as a sheep’s head: a tangible symbol of our wish to be heads, not tails–leaders, not stragglers. The sheep’s head (the brains were removed and cooked) also served as a reminder of the ram that saved Isaac’s life; we recite the story of the binding of Isaac on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In my family, however, we have discontinued using these last two items: the fish because its Hebrew name, “dag,” sounds like the Hebrew word for worry, “d’agah;” the sheep’s head… for obvious reasons…

1. Dates: Temarim

Advance preparation: Stuff pitted dates with walnuts.

At the seder: Pass around the bowl of dates and, before eating, recite together: May it be Your will, God, that all enmity will end. May we date this new year with peace and happiness. (The word for “end,” yitamu, sounds like tamar, the Hebrew word for date.)

Barukh atah Adonai, elohenu melekh ha-olam, borei p’ri ha-etz.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the universe, Who has created the fruit of the tree.

2. Pomegranate: Rimon

Advance preparation: Peel and remove all seeds from the pomegranate. Place the seeds in a bowl. If pomegranates are difficult to find, you may substitute figs, which also have numerous seeds. Try counting the number of seeds–if you have the patience.

At the seder: Pass around the bowl of pomegranate seeds and, before eating, recite: May we be as full of mitzvot (commandments or good deeds) as the pomegranate is full of seeds.

If you haven’t counted the number of seeds, guess the average number a pomegranate has. Hint: It has something to do with the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah.

3. Apples in honey: Tapuah ba-d’vash

Here’s where Ashkenazic and Sephardic tradition meet.

Advance preparation: Slice apples and dip in honey, or create a traditional apple preserve by cooking apple quarters until they are soft in a small amount of water sweetened with sugar and spiced with whole cloves and rosewater.

At the seder: Pass around the apple and before eating, recite: May it be Your will, God, to renew for us a year as good and sweet as honey

4. String Beans: Rubia or Lubia

In India, where my family is from, we used a long bean with many seeds in the pod, called lubia, which is so similar to the original rubia that it may be the same vegetable (The Soncino Talmud translates rubia as funugreek, a tiny, bitter seed.) This bean is available in Indian and Chinese grocery shops. Otherwise, substitute string beans.

Advance preparation: Boil beans and place in bowl.

At the seder: Pass around beans and before eating, recite: May it be Your will, God, to increase our merits. (The word for “increase,” irbu, resembles the word rubia.)

Barukh ata Adonai, eloheinu melekh ha-olam, borei p’ri ha-adamah.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Who has created the fruit of the earth.

By this point in the seder, the sweet foods have been replaced with vegetables. For children who are not vegetable lovers, it’s good to know that the smallest bite is enough to fulfill the requirements of reciting the blessing. As I did when I was a child (all right, I still do it), you might encourage your children to reserve a piece of apple, pomegranate or date to sweeten their palate after munching on beans, spinach and scallions.

5. Pumpkin or Gourd: K’ra

Advance preparation: Boil pumpkin or gourd. If you use pumpkin, you can mash it and sweeten to taste with brown sugar or honey, cinnamon and ground cloves. Or, open a can of pumpkin pie filling!

At the seder: Pass around pumpkin and before eating, recite: As we eat this gourd, may it be Your will, God, to guard us. Tear away all evil decrees against us as our merits are called before You. (K’ra resembles the word for “tear” and “called.”)

6. Spinach or Beetroot Leaves: Selek

Advance preparation: boil spinach or beetroot leaves.

At the seder: Pass around spinach or beetroot leaves, and before eating, recite: May it be Your will, God, to banish all the enemies who might beat us. (Selek resembles the word for banish, “yistalku.”)

7. Leeks or Scallions: Karti

Advance preparation: Slice leeks or scallions. Cook leeks in a little broth if desired.

At the seder: Pass around leeks or scallions and before eating, recite: May it be Your will, God, to cut off all our enemies. (Karti resembles “ikartu,” the word for “cut off.”)

Add the following English version of the blessing, if you like. It’s from the New Year Siddur (prayer book) by David De Sola Pool, published by the Union of Sephardic Congregations: “Like as we eat this leek may our luck never lack in the year to come.” Dr. De Sola Pool’s other translations of the blessings are equally as “punny.”

You can also create your own translations of the blessings, or think up new ones based on the symbolic foods. And if you still want to end the seder by wishing for heads, not tails, consider the vegetarian version: a head of lettuce!

In any case, may the year ahead be full of blessings! Tahel shanah u-virkhoteha

Rahel Musleah

Rahel Musleah is the author of Why on This Night? A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration (Simon & Schuster). She presents programs on the Jewish communities of India, where she was born.