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The Rosh Hashanah Seder: Who Knew?

As an Italian Jew I always knew my traditions were different from the Ashkenazi Jews I grew up with in Pittsburgh. Like the time I included couscous at my Passover seder, much to the horror of my best friend’s Polish grandmother! There were many customs for Passover, Hanukkah and even Purim that our Sephardic/marranos family brought from the Old Country and over the years. I thought I knew them all.

Later on when I accepted a rabbinate in Italy, I was surprised to learn that one important Italian Jewish tradition never made it from Italy to America. As rabbi for a small pluralistic community in Milan, I was stunned to learn that for Italian Jews, Rosh Hashanah eve did not include a synagogue service. Instead the night before the New Year was dedicated to the Rosh Hashanah seder!

fish head
Traditional Italian Jews place a fish head at the center of the Rosh Hashanah seder. But nobody will complain if you choose a head of lettuce instead.

From north to south, from the "thigh" of the Italian "boot" all the way down to the "toe," Italian Jews gather around the family table and share symbolic foods, blessings, stories, poems and songs to welcome the New Year.

"Ricorda, Rabbina, Remember, Rabbi," my school director Eva explained. "It’s the birthday of the world so the Rosh Hashanah seder is our way to have a birthday party." And what a party it is.

The seder itself has its origins in the Talmud (Horayot 12a) where Rabbi Abaye writes about eating those foods that grow in abundance at this time of the year, symbolizing our hopes and dreams for the coming year. The seder itself is called, "Seder Yehi Ratzon," ("The seder of God’s will") and begins with prayers asking that we be blessed with bounty, strength and peace.

Seven bowls are arranged in a circle on the table, with a different fruit or vegetable in each one. We use dates, pomegranates, apples and honey, string beans, pumpkin, spinach and scallions. Traditionalists place a fish head or sheep’s head in the center. For those who don't have the stomach for an animal's noggin, a head of lettuce works just as well.

The Rosh Hashanah Haggadah contains readings from Genesis which describe the creation of the world and when and how to eat the symbolic foods. As each bowl is passed around, each guest samples its contents while the seder leader makes each specific blessing.

The seder concludes with the passing of the head of lettuce. As each person breaks off a piece, the leader prays, "May it be Your will, Adonai, that we be heads, not tails. Leaders, not followers, never stragglers but at the head of what is right and what is good in the year to come."

A lively version of "Ken Yehi Ratzon," complete with a rousing Ladino melody, concludes the seder experience. Then, just like on Passover, a festive meal is served.

Shanah tovahs are exchanged with hugs and kisses all around. On both cheeks. After all, it’s Italy.

Mini-Haggadah

In Sephardic Jewish homes there are several ways to prepare and conduct the Rosh Hashanah seder. These traditional foods and blessings represent a combination of my family’s Sephardic traditions from Italy, Gibraltar and Morocco.

To conduct the seder, you’ll need seven bowls placed in the center of the table. Each bowl is filled with one of the following:

  • Dates
  • Pomegranates
  • Apples and honey
  • String beans
  • Pumpkin
  • Spinach and scallions
  • Fish head/sheep's head (or head of lettuce)

The leader begins the seder.

Leader: Seder Yehi Ratzon

The group responds: Seder Yehi Ratzon … Baruch HaShem.

 

Dates (Tamarim)

(for details on preparation, click here)

Pass around the bowl and have each person take one date.

Leader: May It be your will, G-d, that all fighting will end. May we date this New Year with Peace and Happiness.

Group: Ken Yehi Ratzon.

All take a bite.

Leader: "Baruch atah Adonai, elohenu melech ah-olam, borei p’re ha-etz. Blessed are you, Adonai, Ruler of the universe who has created the fruit of the tree."

 

Pomegranate (Rimon)

(for details on preparation, click here)

Pass the bowl around and have each person take a piece of pomegranate or one fig.

Leader: May it be your will, G-d, that in this new year we keep your commandments.

Group: Ken Yehi Ratzon.

All take a bite.

 

Apples and honey (Tapuah ba-d’vash)

(for details on preparation, click here)

Pass around the apple slices and have each person hold a dipped slice.

Leader: May it be Your will, G-d, to renew for us a year that is as good and sweet as honey.

Group: Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Eat the apples.

Sing "Apples and Honey for Rosh Hashanah."

 

String Beans (Rubia o Lubia , in Italian "Fagiolino")

(for details on preparation, click here)

Pass around the beans.

Leader: May it be your will, G-d, that we increase our merits.

Group: Ken Yehi Ratzon

Leader: Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, borei p’ri ha-adamah. Blessed are you, Adonai, ruler of the universe, who has created the fruit of the earth.

 

Pumpkin or Gourd (K’ra)

(for details on preparation, click here)

Pass pumpkin around.

Leader: As we eat this pumpkin, may it be Your will, G-d , to guard us. Tear away all evil decrees against us and remember the good things we have done in the past and will do in the new year.

Group: Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Eat the pumpkin.

Spinach or Beetroot Leaves (Selek)

(for details on preparation, click here)

Pass them around, each person taking a leaf.

Leader: May it be Your will, G-d, to banish all the enemies who might beat us.

Group: Ken Yehi Ratzon.

 

Leeks or Scallions (Karti)

(for details on preparation, click here)

Pass these around the table.

Leader: May it be Your will, G-d, that mazel (good fortune) find us in the year to come.

Group: Ken Yehi Ratzon

 

Fish head/Sheep’s Head/Head of lettuce

Pass the head around with each person taking a piece.

Leader: May it be Your will, G-d, that we be heads, not tails. Leaders, not followers, never stragglers but at the head of what is right and what is good in the year to come.

Group: Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Sing "Hi Ne Ma Tov."

With thanks to Rahel Musleah, whose Sephardic Indian traditions form the basis of this seder.

Hebrew for "blessed are You [,my God]." Introductory words to many Jewish prayers. Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "The Name." Used as a substitute for the Hebrew name for God, which religious Jews are forbidden from uttering outside of prayer. ("This lovely dinner was provided by HaShem - and the Goldsteins!" or "If, HaShem willing, we arrive safely...") A language, also known as Judaeo-Spanish or Judezmo, once widely used by Sephardic communities, but now close to extinction. It is influenced by Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and Turkish. It is comparable to the language of many Ashkenazi communities, Yiddish. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Hebrew for "lots," referring to the lots cast by Haman, the story's antagonist, to determine the date on which to kill the Jewish people. It's a spring holiday commemorating the Jewish people's triumph. The story is told through the biblical Book of Esther; the namesake heroine, a Jewish woman, marries the Persian king. Their interfaith relationship is central to the story. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. God. In traditional Jewish circles, it is forbidden to write or say God's full Hebrew name. This custom has carried over into English by some, who write "God" without the vowel (o) and replace it with a hyphen. Some use variations of this, such as G!d or G@d.
Rabbi Barbara Aiello

Rabbi Barbara Aiello is Italy's first woman rabbi and non-orthodox rabbi who lives and works in Italy. She has officiated many destination interfaith weddings and has co-officiated with Catholic priests, Protestant ministers as well as Muslim and Hindu lay leaders. Rabbi Barbara views her interfaith weddings as an essential first step in a couple's continuing Jewish traditions in their homes and with their children. Contact Rabbi Barbara at www.rabbibarbara.com.

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