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Amy Winehouse in London last August.

 

 

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Culinary Prayer: Lesser-Known Rosh Hashanah Food Rituals

 

By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder
Be'chol Lashon Rabbi-in-Residence


 

Rosh Hashana is all about prayer for the New Year; we sing it, we say it, we blow it and of course we eat it. The apples and honey aren’t just seasonal and don’t just taste good, they embody our hopes and wishes for the New Year. The blessing recited over this tasty combo gives focuses our attention towards a sweet new year “May it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors, that we be renewed for a good and sweet year.” This approach to eating is what I like to think of as culinary prayer, a form of you pray what you eat whereby imbibing sweet foods will help fill you body and soul with that same quality.


In my menu plan for Rosh Hashana there is a carrot salad with pomegranate seeds and pomegranate molasses, a honey nut cake (somewhat controversial but you have to read on to find out why), stuffed dates, pumpkin pastries and a bean salad. Not merely culinary fancy – though I’m hoping it will taste good – my menu is based on an ancient series of food omens that women have cooked through the ages.  It’s true, long before your grandmother was making brisket, the rabbis of the Talmud were already making menu suggestions.

 

The Rabbis used word plays, visual puns and flavor associations to make symbolic connections between these foods and the themes of the holidays (see below for a full list).  With time, the list of Rosh Hashana foods grew and shifted with different geographic communities developing their own eating practices for the New Year.  Eventually, the Shulkhan Arukh, one of the definitive codes of Jewish law, codified one list of foods and their blessings while Jews from North Africa would cook a range of symbolic foods into complex and highly symbolic (and tasty) menus to reflect local customs and interpretations.

 

So as you sit down to plan your holiday meals, consider going back to the sources and pulling out an ancient suggestion or two, but you might also consider your own wishes for the coming year and see what food associations they might inspire. I’ve known people who suggest serving Dove bars in hopes of a peaceful year. I myself have served Smarties – a Canadian candy covered chocolate – as I prayed for good grades. This year I’m thinking of adding a good bottle of scotch to the menu – the kind that gets better and smoother with age.


Like the traditional liturgy some of the themes tied to the traditional foods are harsh. You may choose to avoid them altogether or you may follow the lead of Gilda Angel, whose book, Sephardic Holiday Cooking is a fabulous source of culinary and Jewish wisdom, and work on reinterpreting them. Or you may use them to turn the table into an opportunity to have a serious discussion about the theology and themes of the high holy days.

The blessings for each of these foods begins with the same invocation, Yehi L’Ratzon Adonai, Elohainu v’Elohai Avotainu v’Imotanu… May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors…. In each case the ending changes to accommodate the particular wish that is implied when eating the particular food. When making up you own food blessings, you might begin with the traditional opening and add your own conclusion.  For example, a blessing over a multi-grain loaf might read, May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors that see a year in which the many grains of society come together as a cohesive whole. In the paragraphs that follow, I have provided some explanations of the more common traditional foods and their blessings. I look forward to hearing from all of you about your own culinary prayer for Rosh Hashanah.


Traditional Food Blessings on Rosh Hashanah

Fish or Sheep Head.  These are eaten so that we may “get ahead” in the coming year, conversely the tail is avoided so we are not “left behind.” The fish’s quality of never sleeping and lacking eyelids is linked to a vision of a God as ever vigilant while the sheep’s head has a particular connection to the binding of Isaac which was averted when the ram took the boy’s place on the altar. Vegetarians might choose to substitute a head of broccoli or garlic while the most popular option at my home is gummy fish.


May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that we be like a head and not a tail.   …Shenihiyeh l’Rosh v’Lo l’Zanav.


Pumpkin.  The Aramaic name for pumpkin is k’raa which sounds similar to the Hebrew for ripping, as in ripping up the evil decrees that might be handed out as judgement for our less than perfect ways. My favorite way to eat pumpkin is inspired by the Greek Jewish tradition of Ronchados, a filo pastry filled with pumpkin puree which has the added bonus of being rolled into a snail shape reminiscent of the crown of God and the cyclical nature of the returning year.


May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that our evil decree will be annulled and our merits will be recalled.   …Shetikraa G’zar Dinainu, v’Yikruu l’Fanecha Zechuyotainu.


Beets.  Enemies Beware! The Hebrew word for beets silka (rabbinic Hebrew) selek(modern Hebrew) evokes the Hebrew for to rid or remove. The goal of eating beets is to remove the enemy in our midst, add to that the bright red color and it gets rather grim –though mighty tasty roasted with a nice vinaigrette.


May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that our enemies and the enemies of God will be banished.   …She’yistalku Oyveynu v’Soneincha.


Leeks. Like beets, leeks present us with an opportunity to “cut down” our enemies. The rabbinic Hebrew kartee is not all that far from karet to kill off or destroy. Personally, I am very fond of Gilda Angel’s reworking of this traditional food from an entirely different perspective, in her book she gets into the spirit of word play and suggests “Like as we eat this leek may our luck never lack in the year to come.”


May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that our enemies and the enemies of God will be banished.   …She’yistalku Oyveynu v’Soneincha.


Dates. And if the first three options didn’t destroy our enemies, the third most certainly will. Tamar, the Hebrew word for dates, has a audio similarity with the word yitamu will be consumed. Eating them is meant to once again assure us that our enemies will be consumed. Once again, I favor the liberal interpretation of Gilda Angel “As we eat this date, may we date the New Year that is beginning as one of happiness and blessing, and peace for all humankind.”

May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that our enemies will be consumed.    …SheYitamu Sonenanu.


Pomegranates. In the land of Israe,l these seasonal fruits are a sign of plenty both because of their seeds and their bountiful presence at the New Year. Moreover, the seeds of the pomegranate are said to number 613 like the number of mitzvot in the Torah. If you doubt that accounting, perhaps you might consider making a sport of having the guests at your Rosh Hashana table help to double check.


May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that our deeds be as manifold as the seeds of the pomegranate.  …Shenihiyeh Milai Mitzvot K’Rimon.


Fenugreek or beans or peas.  The confusion here stems from the fact that there are several possible interpretations of the word rubiyah which is mentioned in the Talmud as one of the foods to be eaten. Whichever you choose to consume, these are signs of plenty and should help ensure a bountiful year.


May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that our merits increase.  …She’yirbu Zechuyotainu.


Tzimmes. This dish of sweetened stewed carrot rounds is an Eastern European holiday favorite. It brings together the sweet tastes that are so much part of the many holiday traditions. Noam Zion suggests that carrots Hebrew name, gezer, make them a natural accompaniment for pumpkin for while the pumpkin stands for tearing the carrots sound like g’zar as in g’zar dineinu, our final verdict. But there’s more, literally. The Yiddish word for carrots is mehrn which sounds like more, so eating tzimmes is meant to bring more into our lives in the coming year. More what? More gold. If you cut the carrots in circles and parboil or lightly cook them they end up looking like pieces of gold, so eating lots of carrots portends a year of financial bounty.  (note many people eat tzimmes without a blessing but one may use one the following)


May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, that our evil decree will be annulled and our merits will be recalled.  …Shetikraa G’zar Dinainu, v’Yikruu l’Fanecha Zechuyotainu.

- OR -

May it be your will Adonai, our God and God of our ancesters, that we be blessed with the riches of the year to come.  …Sheyiyeh Lanu Shana Zahav KaGezer.


There many of the opinion that nuts are to be avoided at Rosh Hashana as the numeric equivalent of the word nut is the same as that of the word sin and imbibing nuts may push one in the wrong direction. And given the colloquial meaning of “going nuts” we might consider avoiding the bad omens they bring –though as I said, I’m serving a fantastic nut tishpishti. Similarly there are those who avoid black foods, choosing for example white raisins over black so that no black marks might appear in our ledger books.


What are YOUR culinary prayers for the coming year?

 


 


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