Rosh Hashanah Seder Guide - Rosh Hashana Seder Guide

What is a Rosh Hashanah Seder ? What is the history / story / origin of the Rosh Hashanah Seder ? Which Jewish groups conduct a Rosh Hashana Seder ? What foods are used in a Rosh Hashanah Seder ? How do I conduct a Rosh Hashanah Seder ? The answers to all these questions are all here in quick succession.

What is a Rosh Hashanah Seder ?

A Rosh Hashanah Seder is a festive meal in commemoration of Rosh Hashanah or in other words, the Jewish New Year, in addition to the many other themes of Rosh Hashanah: it being: (1) The Day of Judgement (midrashic texts depict G-d as sitting upon a throne while books that contain all the deeds of humanity are opened for review by G-d as each human being passes in front of G-d while his or her deeds are evaluated by G-d); (2) The Day of Remembrance [of the sovereignty and kingship of G-d to all human beings and of remembering the sounding of the Shofar or Ram's Horn, the latter whose words in Hebrew, "Zikaron Teruah" or "Zikkaron Teruah", are used in place of "Yom Teruah" (the day of sounding the shofar or the day of the blowing of the shofar or trumpet or ram's horn) in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Shabbat or Sabbath since we are not allowed to sound or blow the shofar if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Shabbat or Sabbath]; (3) The Day of the Blowing of the Shofar or Sounding of the Shofar, or Ram's Horn (to proclaim the kingship and sovereignty of G-d); and (4) The Day of the Creation of the World and of Adam, and thus, the day and date of the Jewish New Year, when the year number changes/increases in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar, therefore, Rosh Hashanah is known as the New Year For Years. Why is this festive meal called a Rosh Hashanah Seder ? The Rosh Hashanah Seder is called a Seder ("order" in Hebrew) because a specific order of religious rituals are followed when conducting the Rosh Hashanah Seder festive meal.

What is the history / story / origin of the Rosh Hashanah Seder ?

The origin of the Rosh Hashanah Seder dates back in Jewish history to the Babylonian Talmud. In Tractate Keritot 6a and in a parallel variant in Horayot 12a of the Babylonian Talmud, there is a discussion about omens that carry significance. This discussion was carried on by Rabbi Abaye (278 C.E. or 280 C.E. - 338 C.E. or 339 C.E.; "Abaye" means "little father" in Hebrew), a Babylonian Amora ("Amora" means "those who say" or "those who tell over" in Hebrew; Rabbi Abaye was a renowned Jewish scholar who "said" or "told over" the teachings of the Oral Law or Talmud). Rabbi Abaye 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: (1) pumpkin, (2) a bean-like vegetable called ruviah or ruvia or ruviyah or ruviya or rubia or rubiah or rubiya or rubiyah, (3) leeks, (4) beets, and (5) dates. Jewish communities throughout the world have since adapted this practice, creating seders of their own on Rosh Hashanah.

Which Jewish groups conduct a Rosh Hashana Seder ?

Rosh Hashanah Seders nowadays are primarily conducted by Jewish people of either Sephardic / Sephardi descent, that is, Jews whose ancestors came from either Spain and/or Portugal, and Jews of Mizrahi / Mizrachi descent, that is, Jews whose ancestors came from either the Middle East or other areas in Asia. Conducting a Rosh Hashanah Seder is, for the most part, not currently in the tradition of Ashkenazic / Ashkenazi Jews, that is, Jews whose ancestors came from either Central, Eastern, and/or Northwestern Europe. However, there was a time when Ashkenazic Jews did conduct a small Rosh Hashanah Seder with just a few symbolic foods, but in contrast to the Sephardic Jews and Mizrahi Jews, the practice of conducting a Rosh Hashanah Seder fell into disuse, while Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews not only continued holding Rosh Hashanah Seders, but they actually increased the number of symbolic foods used at their Rosh Hashanah Seders.

What foods are used in a Rosh Hashanah Seder ?

Rosh Hashanah Seder foods consist of the basic foods mentioned by Rabbi Abaye: pumpkin, the specific type of bean-like food called either ruviah or ruvia or ruviyah or ruviya or rubia or rubiah or rubiya or rubiyah (there have been many Jewish scholarly interpretations over the centuries concerning which bean-like food was meant by Rabbi Abaye and so different Jewish communities follow different rabbinical interpretations of what was meant by Rabbi Abaye concerning the ruviah or ruvia or ruviyah or ruviya or rubia or rubiah or rubiya or rubiyah; thus, different bean-like foods are used by different Jewish communities in different countries, bean-like foods such as fenugreek, chick-peas, black-eyed peas, string beans, green beans, and aniseeds), leeks, beets or beetroot leaves, and dates. However, over the centuries, additional foods have been added to the Rosh Hashanah Seder meal, with the type of food or foods added differing depending on the Jewish community in a given country. Foods that have been popular additions to the Rosh Hashanah Seder include: apples and honey, challah or hallah or chalah or halah (an egg bread), pomegranates (Pomegranate is eaten as a symbol and prayer that we be as fruitful as the pomegranate has seeds and that we accomplish as many mitzvot during the incoming year as the pomegranate has seeds. There is a Jewish legend that the pomegranate has at least 613 seeds which correspond to the 613 commandments ("mitzvot" in Hebrew) given by G-d to the Hebrews that are contained in the Torah. The pomegranate is also a symbol of fertility, and thus of the unlimited possibilities for the new year.), figs, carrots, Swiss chard, other gourds besides pumpkin such as squash; scallions, spinach, zucchini, whole cloves (as a spice), sesame seeds, and sugar (instead of honey when used with apples). All the aforementioned Rosh Hashanah foods are known as "simanim" in Hebrew, meaning the "symbolic foods" of Rosh Hashanah.

Ashkenazi Jews, who for the most part do not hold Rosh Hashanah Seders (although this practice is being rediscovered today by a growing number of Ashkenazi Jews), usually serve the following foods at their Rosh Hashanah festive meals: chopped liver, brisket or roast turkey (usually stuffed) or roast chicken, lokhshen kugel ("lokhshen kugel" means "noodle pudding" in Yiddish), matzo balls (usually chicken soup or vegetable soup with matzo balls), tzimmes or tsimmes (usually a sweet carrot, prune, and raisin compote, but sometimes containing meat as well), gefilte fish ("gefilte" means "stuffed" in Yiddish, symbolizing the hope that the upcoming year will be filled with good omens), coleslaw, sliced tomatoes, eggplant, specific cooked vegetables that support the themes of Rosh Hashanah such as sliced carrots and string beans, and sponge cake or honey cake. Challah bread dipped in honey and wine are also used in the Rosh Hashanah religious customs.

How do I conduct a Rosh Hashanah Seder ?

Rosh Hashanah Seders vary depending on the mix of foods used. There are the basic foods as mentioned, but beyond that, there are different foods that different that are used in Jewish communities in different countries. In addition, there are different orders for what blessings and prayers are recited at a Rosh Hashanah Seder, although candle lighting to begin the holiday will always be the first ritual that is performed. As a result, there will be different "seders" or "orders" or structured arrangements for conducting the Rosh Hashanah festive meal that different Jewish communities and different Jewish religious groups will follow. However, in the following paragraphs, I will present to you a basic structure of a Rosh Hashanah Seder which is actually a mixture of the Sephardi and Mizrahi Rosh Hashanah Seder tradition.

The Rosh Hashanah Seder Table

A white tablecloth and the finest cutlery, silverware, and glasses that one has available should be used for setting up the Rosh Hashanah Seder table, as this is a festive occasion and being the Jewish New Year, a white tablecloth symbolizes the purity of the Jewish New Year as well as a fresh start for all of us.

Rosh Hashanah Seder Foods And Blessings

Symbolic foods representing different or multiple themes of Rosh Hashanah are placed on the Rosh Hashanah Seder table. The Rosh Hashanah Seder according to the Sephardic and Mizrahi tradition includes two methods of performing the "order" or "Seder" of rituals: (1) performing culinary blessings over the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah. These culinary blessings in the Rosh Hashanah Seder are called "Yehi Ratzon" ("May it be your will" or "May it be G-d's will" in Hebrew). What is a Seder Yehi Ratzon? A Seder Yehi Ratzon is when we ask G-d to guide us and provide us with abundance, strength, and peace in the year ahead. Before eating each symbolic food, we recite: "Yehi Ratzon" ("May it be your will" or "May it be G-d's will") that...(insert a pun on either the equivalent or similar-sounding Hebrew word or Hebrew words vis--vis the symbolic Rosh Hashanah food here). For example, the Hebrew word for the gourd, a Rosh Hashanah symbolic food, is either "k'rah" or "k'ra" or "kera", which sounds both like the word for "proclaim" and the word for "tear" or "rip". Therefore, there are two customs for this yehi ratzon: One then asks: "May it be your will that our merits be proclaimed before you", and the other asks: "May it be your will that the decree for our sentence be torn up". Many of the foods are also blessed with puns on their Hebrew names that turn into wishes that our enemies will be destroyed. For instance, before eating each symbolic food, we ask G-d: "Yehi Ratzon ("May it be your will" or "May it be G-d's will") that our enemies be cut off". Another example of a food-related pun is when some people will stuff some raisins in a stalk of celery and request a "raise in salary" for the new year. There are "Yehi Ratzon" for most of the symbolic foods for the Rosh Hashanah Seder but when there is no Yehi Ratzon for a symbolic food, such as fish, then the following or second method is used: (2) The Rosh Hashanah Seder table will consist of foods that are ancient symbols of good omens. For example, fish is present on the Rosh Hashanah Seder table because fish is an ancient symbol of fertility and abundance. Therefore, on Rosh Hashanah, fish is a symbolic expression of our wish that our merits may multiply like the fish of the sea (some Jews have the custom of not including fish on their Rosh Hashanah Seder table because the Hebrew word for fish - dag - sounds similar to the Hebrew word for worry - de'aga, which is not an appropriate theme for the joyous Rosh Hashanah holiday). So why are the foods for the Rosh Hashanah Seder considered to be symbolic of the holiday? The specific Rosh Hashanah Seder foods are considered to be important symbols of the holiday either because the food itself symbolizes a blessing, or because the food's name connotes or sounds similar to words that indicate a blessing.

Participants at a Rosh Hashanah Seder meal are encouraged to create their own puns for each symbolic Rosh Hashanah food based on its equivalent or similar-sounding Hebrew word or words to complete the Yehi Ratzon for each symbolic food in the Rosh Hashanah Seder. Improvisation and personalization of these puns are important aspects in creating meaning and spiritual connections between the themes of Rosh Hashanah and oneself.

Regarding whether the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah were to be eaten or simply displayed on the Rosh Hashanah Seder table was a subject of debate among various Talmudic authorities. The custom that was decided upon was simply to recite blessings over each symbolic food, touching each food in turn while blessing it. Today, the custom is to recite the appropriate "Yehi ratzon" blessing over each food, and to sample each of the symbolic foods in turn.

The following is a basic structure of a Rosh Hashanah Seder which is actually a mixture of the Sephardi and Mizrahi Rosh Hashanah Seder tradition:

  • Candle Lighting - its purpose is to mark the "separation" of ordinary time from holy time in addition to ushering in the holiday.
  • Chanting the Book (L'Shir Ha'Sefer" in Hebrew) - this deals with chanting a series of verses from the Torah.
  • Reciting Selichot or Selihot ("forgiveness" in Hebrew) - Selichot or Selihot are prayers consisting of litanies and petitions of forgiveness to G-d (Sephardic Jews and Mizrahi Jews will add "Bakashot", meaning "requests" in Hebrew, as in impassioned requests to G-d).
  • Sanctification ("Kiddush" in Hebrew) - the blessing over wine to sanctify both G-d and G-ds' granting us the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.
  • Blessing Our Children ("Birkat Yeladim" in Hebrew) - on Shabbat or the Sabbath, it is a custom to bless children at the Shabbat table. The Birkat Yeladim blessing prescribed by tradition invokes the names of Joseph's sons (according to Genesis 48:20) and the names of the matriarchs, and includes the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24-26). Parents may see this beautiful and intimate moment as a chance to add their own words of blessing and offer expressions of love and appreciation to their children. Parents may opt to bless all their children together or bless each child individually or privately.
  • Rochtzah Yadayim or Rochetz Yadayim (literally "washing hands" in Hebrew) - Handwashing, a purification ritual that is performed before eating. In the blessing for the washing of hands, however, we substitute "rochetz yadayim" (washing hands) for "al netilat yadayim" (literally "the lifting up of the hands" in Hebrew). The reason for this substitution is that this symbolizes that the hands are "lifted" to a higher level and are being consecrated for nobler deeds in fulfillment of G-d's mitzvot ("commandments" in Hebrew). We wash them out of respect to our Maker (Shabbat 50b). The washing of the hands symbolizes the removal of defilement and impurity, and the restoration of spiritual cleanliness. It also serves as a reminder of the ancient Temple service in which the Kohen ("priest" in Hebrew) was required to wash his hands before beginning the daily ritual (Shemot 30:20 or Exodus 30:20). His was an act of consecration. We emulate that act.
  • Blessing over bread ("Ha-Motzi" in Hebrew) - Dipping a piece of Challah bread into either honey or sugar as a symbol of the hope for a sweet year.
  • Dipping a piece of apple into either honey or sugar also as a symbol of the hope for a sweet year.
  • Apple ("Tapu'ach" in Hebrew) - Perform the shehechiyanu or shechechiyanu blessing over the apple and then the "Yehi Ratzon" blessing (Moroccan-Jews usually use a candied quince instead of an apple for this particular ritual).
  • Reciting the shehechiyanu or shechechiyanu blessing and then the "Yehi Ratzon" blessing for each of the five basic Rosh Hashanah foods as discussed by Rabbi Abaye in the Talmud and in the following order as stated by Rabbi Abaye: (1) pumpkin, (2) a bean-like vegetable called ruviah or ruvia or ruviyah or ruviya or rubia or rubiah or rubiya or rubiyah, (3) leeks, (4) beets, and (5) dates.
  • Reciting the shehechiyanu or shechechiyanu blessing and then the "Yehi Ratzon" blessing for any additional foods on the Rosh Hashanah Seder table in whatever order is chosen. The fish head or ram's head or sheep head is usually the final food that is blessed.
  • Serve and eat the festive meal.
  • Moon Water - Tzafun - Perform the traditional Moroccan-Jewish blessing over moon water.
  • Blessings After Meal - Barech.
  • Conclusion - Nirtzah.

Note that in some Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish family traditions, the Yehi Ratzon for each symbolic Rosh Hashanah food is recited before the Ha-Motzi blessing.

Customs of Rosh Hashanah
Shofar
Traditional Greetings
Shehecheyanu or Shechecheyanu Blessing
Foods
Seder
Readings From Scripture
Liturgical Poems - Piyutim
Tashlich - Tashlikh - Tashlik
Wearing White

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