Rosh Hashanah is just around the corner. For me, the start of a new year is a time of blessing and renewal. Families of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin have a secret to share with the rest of the Jewish world. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, we hold a special ceremony at home, during which we recite blessings over a variety of foods that symbolize our wishes for the new year. The ritual 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 wishes 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 so symbolize 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.
So my shopping list for Rosh Hashanah includes fat, juicy, red-skinned pomegranates; glossy, sticky-sweet dates; apples that will blush spicy pink when they are cooked into preserves with a drop of red food coloring and whole cloves; savory pumpkin; pungent leeks or scallions, foot-long string beans (available in Indian shops) and deep-green spinach. Often, my parents and my children prepare the foods together. It’s an art to separate the jewel-like pomegranate seeds without splattering their scarlet juice all over the kitchen counter; to split the dates, stuff them with walnut halves and arrange them in concentric ovals on a newly polished silver dish.
We begin the seder itself with a series of biblical verses that carry mystical significance, followed by a declaration that always sends shivers down my spine: Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! Let the year begin and all its blessings! It’s a dramatic moment in its specificity, because this moment and no other ushers in a year that will–so the verse says--unquestionably bring blessings in its wake. I like that positive spirit.
Then come the blessings: First, the dates. “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.). Second, the pomegranate. May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds. Apples: May it be Your will, God, to renew for us a year as good and sweet as honey. String beans (Rubia or Lubia): May it be Your will, God, to increase our merits (The word for increase, irbu, resembles the word rubia, bean.). Pumpkin or gourd (k’ra): As we eat this gourd, may it be your will, God, to guard us. Tear away all evil decrees against is as our merits are called before you (K’ra resembles the word “tear” and “called.”). Spinach or beetroot leaves (selek): May it be your will, God, to banish all the enemies who might beat us (Selek resembles the word for banish, yistalku). Leeks or Scallions (Karti): May it be your will, God, to cut off our enemies (karti resembles yikartu, the word for “cut off.”)
Originally, the seder called for a fish head to represent fertility, and a sheep’s head, to symbolize 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, we 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.
Because the seder doesn’t focus exclusively on sweet symbols, it mirrors the realities of our lives. The bitter truths, fears and enmities we live with mix with the sweetness. Life is not just beginnings; it is also endings. It’s not just honeyed dates, it’s also the sting of scallions. It is about uncovering blessings despite the elusiveness of peace.
Finding direction and beauty in our lives through the basic fruits of the earth allows us to push aside the chaos that clutters our days and uncover the goodness and sweetness of time. The seder points to a specific direction by which to achieve sweetness: the blessing of the pomegranate asks that our lives be filled with mitzvot. We ask for God’s partnership in the process. That’s how our Rosh Hashanah blessings differ from secular New Year’s resolutions. God’s guidance enables us to rely on our own strengths.
Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! Let the new year begin with all its goodness and all its blessings.
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