Rosh Hashanah seders are growing in popularity

The Rosh Hashanah seder is one of the holiday’s oldest food traditions — and now it’s one of the newest trends in celebrating the Jewish New Year.

Eating symbolic foods the first night of Rosh Hashanah dates back to Rabbi Abaye’s instructions in the Talmud to eat five foods that were typical of the season. These foods had names or qualities that represent wishes for health, prosperity and a good year.

So while you might not have heard of a Rosh Hashanah seder, some sources say it has existed for about 2,000 years.

Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews have a long history of serving and blessing not just the Talmud’s suggestions, but a host of foods whose name or appearance helps celebrate Rosh Hashanah, which this year begins the evening of Sept. 28.

Items that can be part of a Rosh Hashanah seder.

Ashkenazi Jews have long served symbolic foods — such as apples and honey and honey cake (for a sweet year), round loaves of challah (symbolic of the crown and the circular nature of time) and often a dish containing carrots (cut into discs, they recall golden coins and their Yiddish name sounds like the word for multiply) — even though the foods were not presented in a seder, per se.

But Sarah Levin, executive director of the S.F.-based agency JIMENA, Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, grew up participating in Rosh Hashanah seders and recalls them fondly.

Rosh Hashanah seders allow people to incorporate blessings that add meaning to the holiday dinner, and they also play into two trends: a fascination with foods that help define Jewish tradition and rituals, and practicing Judaism at home rather than in synagogue.

JIMENA will be sponsoring a Rosh Hashanah seder Sept. 25, Levin noted. Before a vegetarian potluck, the group will say blessings over apples (for sweetness), dates (for peace), green beans (for prosperity), pomegranate (for mitzvahs), pumpkin (for happiness), beet leaves (for freedom), leeks (for friendship) and a head of lettuce (for leadership).

Regionally and culturally, there are differences among Rosh Hashanah seders. Some foods are avoided in one part of the world, but sought out in another, and food availability in different regions plays a role, too.

To hold the ritual foods at a Rosh Hashanah seder, bowls are arranged on a plate — as actual Rosh Hashanah seder plates are not known to be readily available. Although some people place the food in baskets, it’s the roundness of the dishes that is said to represent wholeness and continuity.

The choice of foods is based on associations of the ingredient with the new year. While these can vary, they often include:

Dates: The Hebrew word for dates (tamar) is reminiscent of the word for end and the blessing is that enmity will end. It is one of the talmudic suggestions.

Pomegranates: The pomegranate is thought to have as many seeds (613) as there are mitzvahs, and the blessing is that we may be as full of mitzvahs as the pomegranate is full of seeds. Its plentitude of seeds is also associated with fertility and plenty.

Rosh Hashanah seder plate

Apples and honey: For a sweet year. Dipping apples in honey is one element of an Ashkenazi Rosh Hashanah seder that has been incorporated from European Jews.

Green beans: The Talmud instructs us to eat rubiya. Rubiya is actually fenugreek (a small pod filled with seeds). The word rubiya is similar to the Hebrew word for increase or multiply. In some cultures, green beans became the stand-in for fenugreek;  in other cultures, black-eyed peas are used.

Pumpkin or squash: The word for pumpkin or gourd is kraa, which is similar to the Hebrew word for “to be called out,” and the blessing is that our good deeds should be called out. It is also similar to the word for “to tear up,” a plea to God to tear up any harsh judgments against us.

Beet greens or chard: Silka, the Hebrew word for these greens, is similar to the phrase “that they will be removed,” and the Talmud asks us to eat them as a way of asking for our enemies be taken away.

Leeks or scallions: Another food mentioned by Rabbi Abaye, the Hebrew word karti is similar to the word for “cut off,” and the blessing is that our enemies be cut off.

Fish or sheep’s head: This is said to symbolize the hope that the family members be the head and not the tail. Lamb is also symbolic (in regard to Isaac’s binding and almost sacrifice), while fish are a symbol of fruitfulness. Today, many families substitute a whole fish — or a head of lettuce, roasted onion or garlic bulb.

Each food is passed around, blessed with “Yehi Ratzon” (may it be God’s will) and sampled if appropriate. Many Sephardic and Mizrachi families also include those ingredients in the meal.

Benyamin Uriah Banuelos, a member of San Francisco’s Magain David Sephardim Congregation, said his family’s Rosh Hashanah meal always included leek patties, whitefish salad and pumpkin turnovers — all representative of the seder foods. His family is a mix of Jews from Greece and Spain.

The Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos has hosted Rosh Hashanah seders for families in past years, and has another planned for Sept. 25. Jenessa Schwartz, the program director of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning, said that the seder “begins with prayers over traditional foods such as apples and honey and challah, and then other traditional foods from all Jewish traditions, such as pomegranates and leeks.”

It also puts a more contemporary spin on things, offering blessings over celery (for prosperity, such as a raise in salary) and peaches (for a “peachy” year). There will also be “Happy Birthday to the World” cupcakes for children to decorate, and the seder will include time for families to talk about the coming year and focus on things they can do better.

In previous years, Schwartz said, participants arrive saying, “I didn’t know you were supposed to have a Rosh Hashanah seder,” but leave “feeling good” about learning new traditions.

According to Banuelos, there is one final custom to include: Rosh Hashanah seder celebrants should wish each other many years of life and happiness with the Ladino phrase “para muchos años.”

A Rosh Hashanah seder and vegetarian potluck will be held 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sept. 25 at Lindley Meadow picnic area in Golden Gate Park, near 30th Avenue and JFK Drive, S.F. Free and open to public. Please bring a vegetarian dish to share. Hosted by JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa. Information:  www.jimena.org/Calendar.htm. RSVP to MoniqueArar@jimena.org.


A Rosh Hashanah seder geared toward children
12 and younger and their families is set for 3 to 5 p.m. Sept. 25 at the Addison-Penzak JCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. $30 for up to five people, $4 each additional person. Information: www.svjcc.org/events. RSVP by Sept. 19 to CJLL@svjcc.org or (408) 357-7411.

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Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer. She blogs about her food at clickblogappetit.com. Contact Faith at clickblogappetit@gmail.com.