When we think of a seder, most of us probably think of Passover. We often associate the seder with the Haggadah, a festive (chameitz-free) dinner, and the ornate seder plate assorted with symbolic foods. However, Passover isn’t the only time of the Jewish year in which we can have a seder. Many Jews, especially in the Sephardi (Spanish) and Mizrahi (Arabic) Jewish communities, bring out another seder plate for the festival of Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish new year.
In a way, the Rosh Hashanah seder is almost a perfect complement to the Passover seder. While the Passover seder focuses on the Jewish people’s difficult past, the Rosh Hashanah seder serves to guide us into the future – specifically, a very sweet future.
The seder plate is filled with special foods called simanim, which literally means “signs.” These foods symbolize good omens to the future, and the imperative to eat them on Rosh Hashanah comes directly from the Talmud: “A person should always be accustomed to seeing these on Rosh HaShanah: Squash, and fenugreek (a clover-like herb), leeks, and chard, and dates, as each of these grows quickly and serves as a positive omen for one’s actions during the coming year” (Horayot 12a).
The Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities use this verse as a guide when they customarily hold their Rosh HaShanah seders, complete with the following typical items (often with inventive puns).
While Rosh HaShanah is about new beginnings, we also know the importance of endings. Tamar, or “date” in Hebrew, is similar to the word yitamu, which means “to end.” In addition to its sweetness, the date wishes an “end” to those who wish us ill will.
The date can also symbolize the end to injustice, to apathy and indifference, to racism and transphobia and sexism. Without putting an end to the things that harm us or hold us back, we cannot move forward to a new beginning.
The pomegranate is commonly associated with Judaism for a reason: Its numerous seeds. According to a Midrash, the pomegranate contains 613 seeds, which symbolize the 613 mitzvot (commandments). While we know that not every pomegranate has this many seeds, of course, this allegory encourages us to fulfill mitzvot and live righteous lives.
What seeds of your own do you want to plant for the sweet new year? In what ways do you want to uplift others, to grow Jewishly, to pursue justice?
Rubia (String Bean)
Rubia (bean/legume, often associated with string beans) is similar to the Hebrew yirbu, which means “to multiply.” This siman beckons to a future wherein our merits and blessings will have multiplied. Libyan Jews often substitute string beans with a mixture of sugar and sesame seeds, symbolizing the wish for as many blessings as there are sugar crystals and seeds on the Seder plate.
Think about the Jewish community. In our congregations, what ideas do we want to multiply? What lessons do we want to teach our community that few understand? Is it how to be an antiracist congregation? Is it how to celebrate the diversity of gender and sexual identity?
Did you know that scallions and leeks have multiple forms of imagery in Judaism? On Passover, many Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews gently “whip” each other with scallions/leeks at the dinner table, mimicking Egyptian slave drivers from the Exodus story. On Rosh HaShanah, these Jews tear these vegetables into pieces and toss them over their shoulders, beckoning God to cut off our enemies. This is because karti, which is Hebrew for scallion/leek, sounds a lot like the word yikartu, meaning “cut off.”
We all have things in our life we want to cut off, and the High Holidays are a perfect time to reflect on that. What is no longer serving us in our paths as Jews? What is holding us back that we must cut off?
Salka, which is Aramaic for beet, sounds similar to the Hebrew word siluk, which means “removal.” Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews eat these, asking God to remove our enemies from our path. We can use this symbolism the same way we do with leeks and scallions: as a reminder to remove things out of our life that are keeping us from achieving our aspirations.
K’ra is very phonetically similar to the word kara; the former means pumpkin/gourd, and the latter means “to tear apart” and “to proclaim.” Jews use this pun asking that God “tear apart” every evil decree against us and “to proclaim” our good merits, or blessings. This can serve as a reminder for us to be thankful and hopeful for the future, even when things seem difficult to handle.
The Hebrew word gezer sounds like the word ligzor, which means to “cut off” and “to decree” (seeing a pattern here?) Like the pumpkin, this siman is symbolic of the Jewish wish that God judge us with positive decrees. Additionally, in Yiddish, the word for “carrots” and “to increase” are the same – mehren – and Eastern European Jews use this as a blessing for an increased bounty. Similarly, we can use this siman as a reminder of the bounty and the positivity that we are capable of sharing with those around us.
Speaking of bounty, some Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews serve fish on Rosh HaShanah as a symbol of plenty and fertility. As a vegetarian alternative, you can use an egg (similar to Passover) or whatever symbolizes bounty and fertility to you.
Many Jewish communities take the meaning of Rosh HaShanah – “head of the year” – very literally by putting a fish head or a lamb’s head on the seder plate. While many opt not to eat the head, many see it as a reminder of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, and the ram that was sacrificed on his behalf, as well as a prayer that we be more like the “head” and less like the “tail.”
Apples/Quinces and Honey
Dipping apples in honey is the most widely known symbol for Rosh HaShanah and the prayer for “a sweet new year,” and for Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, this is no different. Iraqi Jews, for instance, bake their apples with sugar, and Yemenite Jews use quinces (pear-like fruits) instead of apples.
Regardless of what we choose to eat and serve on our seder plates, the symbolism of sweetness, of a new year with endless potential can inspire all of us to live with passion, with love, and with righteous action.