In North America, the eating of apples and honey is so symbolic of Rosh Hashanah that many of us likely have a greeting card near us right now emblazoned with the image of a slice of apple dripping with honey and a note wishing us a sweet New Year. Yet Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews do not tend to eat apples dipped in honey because it is essentially an Ashkenazic custom. But, not to worry, Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews instead celebrate Rosh Hashanah with a ritualized and meaningful seder that, overall, seems like a way sweeter deal.
I asked my friend Lydia Nacawa to tell me about the traditions surrounding her family’s Rosh Hashanah seder, which was always held after Erev Rosh Hashanah services and after evening services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Lydia was raised in Montreal in a Jewish Egyptian family. Her paternal grandmother, Fortunée Sakal, was brought up in Cairo and, as the family matriarch, ruled both the Cairo kitchen and the Montreal kitchen with the culinary skills and loving hands Lydia herself has inherited.
The family’s Rosh Hashanah seder did not follow instructions written in a Haggadah, Lydia explains. “We just had an old wine-stained photocopy of the blessings in a certain order, and a well-thumbed Siddur. We laughed at the familiar confusion each year regarding what would come next, but as long as we got all of the blessings in, mistakes in ‘order’ weren’t a big deal.” The memorable feelings linger regarding the ritual itself, the family recipes that always graced the Rosh Hashanah seder table, and the specific blessings that were made on several symbolic foods.
Rahel Musleah is a writer born and raised in Calcutta, India from an Indian Jewish family originally from Baghdad, Iraq. In “A Sephardic Rosh Hashanah Seder” on the My Jewish Learning website – http://tinyurl.com/y6uw9uy3 – she explains that blessings recited during the seder reflect a desire for peace, bounty, strength, and goodness for the new year ahead. The blessing formula begins with “Yehi ratzon (May it be God’s will)” and each blessing is recited in a specific order (seder), although that order can be different from community to community. It is the Talmud that suggests we eat the following five foods at the beginning of the year because they connote prosperity and bounty: pumpkin/gourd/courgette; rubia (like a long green bean/black eyed pea pod); leeks or scallions; beets, or beet root or spinach; and dates.
In Lydia’s family, the symbolic foods were carefully prepared under Nonna Fortunée’s supervision. Lydia remembers quiches made with courgette or spinach, and her voice trails wistfully as she recalls the “exquisite” meatballs with chopped leeks inside, each meatball handmade, fried golden in oil, and then simmered in a lemony chicken broth (also homemade) – this dish, of course, overachieved with its correspondence to the blessing for leeks. The sweet table following the meal was an exercise in over achievement as well, bountiful with tray upon tray of bite-sized pastries dusted with confectioners’ sugar.
Pomegranates are also on the table, as is honey, and, in many families, apples are too, although they are typically served in a spicy pink preserve on Musleah’s table or mixed with sweet wine and even more sugar, as in Lydia’s family. The seeds of the pomegranate are offered up with the blessing “May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds.” The presence of a whole fish, fish head, or sheep’s head on the table might scandalize some guests (especially non-Jews and Ashkenazim) but it is to ensure that the family is at the head, not at the tail of the year, that they become leaders rather than stragglers.
Musleah’s family begins their seder with a recitation of a religious poem by Abraham Hazzan Girondi from 13th century Spain. Each verse of the poem declares “Let the year end with all its curses!” until the last line reflects a change in tone: “Let the new year begin with all its blessings!”
Lydia tells me that the blessings are as special as the symbolic foods and that each blessing is a pun on the name of the food itself. For example, the Hebrew word for gourd sounds like the Hebrew word meaning to rend or tear, so the blessing over the gourd is “May any bad decree be torn up and that our merits be read before you.” The overall joke, of course, is that once all the special foods have been blessed and tasted, no one is hungry enough to eat the main course. Just kidding. Please pass those meatballs. And Happy New Year!