November 18, 2018

The New Year’s Sephardic Seder

It may not be as long and involved as the Passover seder, but for Raquel Bensimon, the ritualized dinner of Rosh Hashana is just as sweet and just as replete with memories.

With her husband, son and daughter-in-law, three grandchildren and the extended family of Ashkenazi in-laws and Sephardic friends, Bensimon puts on a traditional dinner that takes guests back to her native Tangier, Morocco, which she left in 1961.

The festivities start with kiddush on white wine, not red.

“Everything is light and happy and sweet,” says Bensimon, a longtime active member of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. “We don’t put salt on the table, just sugar. On the first day of Rosh Hashana we don’t even drink coffee, because it is dark.”

After Hamotzi, the blessing on the challah (in some customs before Hamotzi) comes the parade of “Yehi Ratzons,” blessings of “May it be God’s will,” said on foods that are symbolic sometimes because of what the food represents, and often because of a play on words.

The one most familiar to American Jews is the apple dipped in honey, for a sweet new year. Among Moroccan Jews, a candied quince usually plays the part.

But while Ashkenazi customs begin and end with the apple — and perhaps a fish head — the Sephardim have kept up a much longer list.

That list makes its first appearance in the Talmud, with pumpkin, fenugreek, leek, beet and dates, which commentators assumed were included for their abundance and thus a symbol of prosperity. Other commentators took the concept further, playing on the double meanings the names of the vegetable could have.

The list was codified in many later halachic texts, but fell out of popular use among Ashkenazim, while Sephardim expanded those lists.

Today, many Ashkenazi households are once again adding the colorful customs, probably due in part to the fact that the widely used Machzor published by Artscroll includes the full list of simanim, symbolic foods.

While the order and customs of the simanim vary among Sephardic communities of different origins, many are similar.

A pomegranate symbolizes plenitude, with the hope that the mitzvot performed over the coming year should be plentiful. Bensimon says her family mixes the pomegranate seeds with sesame seeds and anise seeds.

A date, which in Hebrew is a tamar, is eaten with a benediction asking God that Israel’s enemies be consumed and that sinners vanish from the earth, both using the Hebrew word “tamu,” similar in root to tamar.

The “ruviah,” which could be fenugreek, black-eyed peas or string beans, tie into the word “yirbu,” multiply, with the prayer that merits should increase over the new year.

The leek is known in Hebrew as “karti, ” which is similar to the word for cut off, “karet,” imploring that God cut off enemies of the Jews.

Similarly, “silka,” which means either beet or spinach, is similar to the Hebrew word for disappear — symbolizing the prayer that our enemies disappear.

Using words from the Rosh Hashana prayers, “Kera roah gezar dineinu,” may the evil decree be torn up, pumpkin or gourd are eaten, playing on the Hebrew “kra.”

Based on the same phrase, Ashkenazim also have the custom of eating carrots, “gezer,” similar to the word “gezar,” decree.

Another custom that has been maintained among both Ashkenazim and Sephardim is that of eating part of an animal head, so that we may be the head and not the tail. Among Ashkenazim the head of choice is usually that of a fish, which also represents plenitude. Among many Sephardic communities, a sheep’s head is used, also symbolizing the ram that took the place of Isaac in the story of the binding of Isaac, which is read on Rosh Hashana.

Bensimon says in Morocco her family also used a lung, symbolizing the breath and spirit of a New Year, although she has not seen that practiced in America.

Bensimon and other Moroccans usually make a vegetable soup out of all the vegetables mentioned in the simanim, along with other winter vegetables, just as on Passover they have a vegetable soup with all the spring vegetables.

Along with the soup, Bensimon prepares a sweet dish of cous cous, vegetables, pumpkin and raisins with a cinnamony, candied onion sauce.

In Morocco, cous cous was the meal of celebration, much as turkey has become a traditional holiday food among Americans, Bensimon says.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple is also trying to keep the Rosh Hashana seder alive. He circulated among his congregants a list of the simanim, along with explanations of why these foods are relevant and how they vary among the different Sephardic communities.

“We hang on to our traditions,” Bensimon says. “As Americanized as we’ve become, when it comes to the holidays, we go back years for traditions.”