What do you do for Rosh Hashanah dinner? Do you dip apples in honey, pray for a sweet new year and continue on to the gefilte fish, brisket and kugel?
You could try something new: the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder.
Seder is a Hebrew word for “order”; just as with Passover, the one for this High Holiday suggests a structured meal with blessings.
But the Rosh Hashanah seder begins tapas-style, with a pun-driven ceremony that is practiced around the world among Jewish-Sephardic families, mainly those that originated in Arabic-speaking countries. It takes place on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, which this year occurs Wednesday, Sept. 28.
The series of blessings (“yehi ratzons”) over small dishes, each symbolizing a wish for the new year, often involve quirky wordplay in Hebrew and Aramaic. This is what my family did when I was growing up in Israel, and it is how my family and friends celebrate the holiday today.
When we eat squash (in transliterated Aramaic, it’s “kara,” from the word for “to rip”), we ask God “to rip the evil of our verdicts.” With a dish of black-eyed peas (“rubia” or “lubia” in Aramaic, from the same root word as “to increase”), we offer a blessing to increase our merits. (See the blessings for each food at wapo.st/foodpage.)
The tradition’s origin dates to the days of the Babylonian Talmud, 3rd to 5th century AD. That textbook of Jewish laws and customs describes what one must eat on the eve of the new year. Because the Talmud is written in Aramaic, different interpretations developed over the years, and each Jewish community chose its own ways to prepare dishes that feature those foods.
Jacques Amsellem was born in Fes, Morocco. In the 1950s, after serving in the French army during World War II, he came to America. He settled in, then returned to his home town to look for a bride and found Suzanne. “And within 28 days, they were married,” says their daughter, Esther Amsellem. Together they moved back to the Washington area.
Jacques died three years ago, but Suzanne still observes the Rosh Hashanah seder here with her family, just as her parents used to do back in Morocco.
Although basic traditions have remained unchanged, each community has updated its own translation and interpretation of the foods mentioned in the Talmud.
The Aramaic “rubia,” for example, is referred to by Iraqi Jews as black-eyed peas or haricot verts (or sometimes even simply green beans). Yemenite Jews interpret it as fenugreek, a spice of seeds that, when soaked in water, become a dip used to accompany many dishes. In Suzanne Amsellem’s home, rubia is represented through sesame seeds, which she roasts with a little sugar.
Besides praying to increase their merits, Suzanne encourages her family to eat more sesame seeds because, according to the additional blessing her family came up with, “As many as you eat is as many millions [of dollars] you’re going to have.”
Potomac resident Mirie Mesika was born in Israel to a Libyan Jewish mother and a Czechoslovakian father; her husband’s family originated from Libya as well. They both grew up having the Rosh Hashanah seder, and they keep up the tradition here with their three adult sons and teenage daughter.
For the “silka” (Aramaic; can be beets, spinach or Swiss chard), Mesika prepares Swiss chard. She chops the leaves and sautes them with a little oil, then pours in lightly whisked eggs and cooks the mixture until the eggs are set, like a frittata.
She eschews cooking with salt, as some Sephardis do for Rosh Hashanah, symbolizing the desire for a new year that is only sweet. Amsellem family members don’t reintroduce salt into their diet until about a month later, when they celebrate the harvest holiday of Sukkot.
A common blessing for Rosh Hashanah that dates back several centuries has to do with being a leader, or head; not a follower, or tail. To symbolize that wish, it is customary to serve the head of a male sheep. Esther Amsellem’s sister in Israel still serves a boiled sheep’s head, but Esther prepares a few fish heads instead.
Nikki Goodman, an Iraqi Jew from Baghdad, moved to the States in 1971 to study at Boston University. She later married an American Ashkenazi Jew and moved to Damascus, Md. She remembers her mother cooking a sheep’s tongue in Baghdad, but Goodman chooses to fulfill the head requirement by serving veal tongue — considerably smaller — in a squash stew.
She starts by boiling the tongue in water with a lot of onion until the meat is almost tender; the vegetable keeps the tongue from becoming bitter, she says. Goodman then peels the tongue and slices it. In a separate pot, she sautes chopped onions and tomatoes, then adds the sliced tongue and a cup of water with a little tomato paste and cooks the mixture until the tongue is ready. Ten minutes before the stew is done, she adds cubed yellow squash.
Alas, Goodman is the only member of her family who will eat this delicious dish. But it’s a mitzvah — a good deed, the right thing to eat over the holiday — so she still makes it every year.
Pomegranate is perhaps a more appealing and popular Rosh Hashanah food tradition; a legend around the fruit claims that it contains 613 arils, or seeds, which happens to be the exact number of mitzvahs a Jew is supposed to perform each year. I like to include the seeds in a fresh, herby salad whose dressing is enhanced with pomegranate molasses.
It’s not a traditional dish to accompany a blessing; every year I try to improvise a new way to prepare one of the foods. With Rosh Hashanah seder dishes, you can be creative.
Ashkenazi Jews have their share of symbolic foods for Rosh Hashanah — beyond apples and honey, that is — such as eating carrots (“meren” in Yiddish, from the same root word as “to increase”). My Polish grandmother spoke of her mother bringing cooked beans — food that symbolized the same idea of prosperity, of plenty — to the table.
In fact, many Jewish households like to serve just about anything that one can have a lot of, representing either growth in numbers or the wish to do many good deeds. That is what’s behind the tradition of eating fish for Rosh Hashanah. The idea is to increase, to multiply like fish in the sea: a possible justification for that gefilte fish.
Want other ideas for Rosh Hashanah meals? Guttman will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.