On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: A Little Drop of Sweetness - Parashat Nitzavim

This week we read Parashat Nitzavim, and we ring in the year 5780. Join us as Rabbi Rick Jacobs shares memories of Rosh HaShanah and enjoying the unique holiday customs and rituals within our Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, and discusses the sweetness of sharing them with each other. Shanah Tovah!

Three ways to listen:


[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a bit about Judaism. Most weeks, he focuses on the Torah portion of the week. But this week we have a special episode, and Rabbi Jacobs is going to teach us a bit about Rosh HaShanah how we can learn new traditions from anyone we encounter. He teaches us specifically about the Sephardic tradition of the Rosh HaShanah seder.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Nitzavim from almost the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, which means we are right on the edge of a brand-new Jewish year. No matter when you're listening to this podcast this week, if it's the week that it drops, whether it's Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Shabbat, Rosh HaShanah is going to come this Sunday night. And for many of us, it's about getting ready, and what does it mean to get ready? I used to kid, friends who would say, oh, I've got to get all the foods ready. I've got to make sure there's honey cake or teiglach or some of the things-- or the round challah. And I always think, yeah, that is part of it, but there's like the deeper spiritual work of preparing one's soul to make sure that we begin the process of Teshuvah, of repairing the relationships and the things we've done that we regret that we're going to make good on in the coming year.

But the food actually does matter. And so this week's podcast we're going to dive into a whole segment of Rosh HaShanah food that we actually-- most of us, don't know about. Apples and honey, I bet you everybody's got that, check, right. Rosh HaShanah get the apples, cut them up, honey, dip them in, sweetness of the new year, we're done. But turns out there's a whole other dimension to foods in Rosh HaShanah. So some of you know that there are two major groups in Jewish life. There are Ashkenazi, Jews who are from European or Eastern European background, and Sephardic from Sfarad, the name for Spain, or for all those Mediterranean Jewish communities, whether it be Egypt, Iraq, Yemen. And the whole notion is that each one has their own cultures, some of their own customs, and very often, many of their own foods.

I was blessed when I was a first-year rabbinical student in Jerusalem that I worked at a community center and coached basketball there. And one of the really amazing people worked in the community center was a guy named Mayer. And Mayer, right as we started, said, this Shabbat you got to come to my house. He was Yemenite. And I showed up and very modest, small apartment. And then came Shabbat dinner, and I grew up in a ashkenormative, which means that Ashkenazi Eastern European reigned supreme. My grandmother had a traditional Shabbat dinner that never changed, that soup and chicken and the same vegetables and the same desserts. And I remember sitting at Mayer's family Shabbat table, and I didn't recognize any of the food. And I just felt guilty thinking about my grandmother, because this food was delicious. It had flavors I had never tasted, and I thought, I think I'm going to become Sephardic. Or sometimes we say Mizrachi, which means from the east. Mizrachi is another name for Sephardic Jewry.

Well, it turns out that for Rosh HaShanah, going back to the Talmud, there is a whole tradition of having a seder for Rosh HaShanah. Like we have Passover Seder where we have particular foods and we say particular blessings and we gather at the table and we make a beautiful ritual for our family and our friends. For some of us, we think of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, it's about synagogue. It's about communal rituals. But the tradition of a seder for Rosh HaShanah is a beautiful custom, and it really has been kept alive by Sephardic Jewry. The Talmudic passage that it's based on is a section called Hora-ot, 12a. And it there's a whole discussion of omens, that if a person seeks to conduct a new business venture and wants to know if it's going to be successful, it says in the Talmud, let that person raise a rooster. If the rooster grows fat and healthy, well, then the business venture will succeed. Then the Talmud says, one who seeks to embark on a journey and wishes to know if it will be a successful one, if the person will return home safely or not, what should that person do? That person should go to a dark house, and if the person sees the shadow of a shadow they know that they will return and come home. Now I have to say, for me, this feels like magic. It doesn't actually feel like religion. So it goes on to say and particularly one of the great sages, Abaye, says that there are certain omens connected with certain foods that are eaten on Rosh HaShanah. So it talks about squash and leeks and chard and dates and talks about what happens in the coming year if one is able to consume those and recite a series of blessings.

Well, that's not yet enough, and it gets elaborated upon in the course of Sephardic culture. And I just have to say just a little parenthetical note is that there's often a lot of tension between Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. My friend Mayer that I told you about, his family where I spent almost every Shabbat at his family's home when he was in high school, he was sent to yeshiva. Here's this Yemenite young man, and he was sent to yeshiva in Bnei Brak, which is a very, very traditional Ashkenazi community of ultra-Orthodox Jews. And he told a story of arriving at the yeshiva, and here he kind of looks very much like a Yemenite Jew. And he remembered that one of his yeshiva instructors said, Sephardim haven't done anything significant since Yosef Caro, the author of the great code of Jewish law centuries ago. Sometimes the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews is not just one of different cultures but one of superiority and one of denigration of the other. So doing a little podcast on a great Sephardic custom of Rosh HaShanah is a way to both lift up the beauty and the power, particularly of our Sephardic inheritance.

So the way the night goes is you have certain foods. So the table looks a little bit like a seder table in that you have ritual foods on the table. You have dates, and there's a blessing that you say upon eating a date, may it be your will, God, that enmity will end. "Tamar" resembles the word for end. And then we eat pomegranate, and the traditional blessing, may we be as full of mitzvot or commandments as the pomegranate is full of seeds. It's rumored that each pomegranate has 613 seeds equivalent to the 613 commandments. And then, of course, here's one we actually recognize-- the apple, may be your will, God, to renew for us a good and sweet year. Well, before eating string beans, may it be your will, God, that our merits increase. The word [HEBREW] for string beans resembles the word for increase, [HEBREW]. You have all of these beautiful things, including a pumpkin or gourd, spinach or beet leaves, leeks, chives, or scallions. And then it is traditional also to have a fish head-- that we would be the head, not the tail, right, thinking about a very concrete way of thinking about the coming year. Now, for the vegetarians that say I don't want a fish head or a sheep head on my table, are you kidding me? A round challah, OK, but I'm not putting just the head of a fish. So the vegetarian option from the great Sephardic tradition is the head of lettuce. Everybody can like lettuce.

So here are all these ritual foods and the practice of not only eating them but really having a moment for a leisurely meal and of eating the foods and saying extra blessings and being with family and the tastes and the aromas and the whole sense of being connected through history is a very beautiful Sephardic custom. Now, are we going to do some of this in our house this Rosh HaShanah? The answer is yes. And can we borrow, be inspired? Yes, but let's give credit. It's Sephardic custom that gives us these beautiful recipes. And let's also make a commitment that in this new Jewish year 5780 that we'll get over some of these intramural rivalries between our Jewish communities and find that which we can celebrate in each of them and to find the Talmudic and the ancient and the medieval sources but also so we can really take in the fullness of the holiday. I know I'm a rabbi, so a lot of times rabbis think that the whole drama of Rosh HaShanah is only in the synagogue, but here is actually a custom that's about what you do at home. And it could be a time to invite friends or family and to make a little bit more of that moment. Being together, that's itself enough, but adding some ritual foods with some extra blessings and a new cultural richness is also to get over a ailment our Jewish community has called ashkenormativity, which is to always privilege Ashkenazi over Sephardic. That's not something we will do.

A last thought about Mayer's family. One of the most beautiful rituals that we would recite with his family was Havdalah in their house. And they didn't have any of the fancy stuff for Havdalah. So his dad would take two Shabbat candles and put them together, two wicks. There you go. They didn't have a beautiful spice box, but they went into the kitchen and took one of the sweet smells from the spices and brought it. And then for the wine, something sweet. And I remember watching his father who was a Shomer-- he was a guard in a government office building a very modest position, but did it with pride and was able to provide for his families. The end of Havdalah, after we had sung the blessings, after we had smelled the spices and seen the light reflected in our hands, he would take a little bit of the wine, just a drop, and he put it on his pocket. And I was thinking, gosh, I wonder if he'll be able to wash that out. But I asked his dad afterwards. I said, well, I didn't know that tradition. That must be a Sephardic tradition. He said it goes back to his childhood in Yemen that the coming week would be sweet when it comes to earning a living for his family. So a little drop of sweetness was to sweeten the pockets, the ability to earn.

So there is everywhere you look in our Jewish tradition, there is wisdom, there is beauty, there is inspiration. Some of it we know. Some of it we don't know. And I'm hoping in the coming year that we'll have a chance all of us to grow into the types of people that we want to be. The last thing I have to say it's customary to say Shana Tova to people. If you want to be a little more formal, L'shana Tova, which is happy new year. Tova actually doesn't mean happy. Tov or Tova means good. So it means, actually, literally, a good year. And I always think of "happy" as sometimes a little happy face and a superficial type of greeting. But when we wish people a Shana Tova, it's not just a smiley kind of superficial happy. What we mean when we think of this is in Jewish tradition happy is about Osher or [HEBREW] or the deeper purposeful way in which we live. It's not about good luck or just happenstance. And happiness isn't our goal, but cultivating virtue and character and goodness, that we'd be families that overflow with goodness, a Jewish community that overflows with goodness. That's Shana Tova.

So let me wish each and every one of you a delicious Rosh HaShanah with lots of delicious foods and customs and blessings, and may also wish each of you a [HEBREW], a year filled with goodness.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident.

On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, L'hitroat!