New Year Seder
Keter Torah’s rabbi demonstrates Foods that bring New Year’s wishes.
But wait, you’re probably saying, Passover is more than half a year away. Even the lesser-known Tu b’Shevat seder isn’t until February.
Ah, yes, but the rabbi, spiritual leader of Keter Torah Synagogue in West Bloomfield, is preparing for the Jewish year’s third seder, the Rosh Hashanah seder, a custom widely practiced by Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.
The practice comes from the Gemorrah. On both nights of Rosh Hashanah, after Kiddush and HaMotzi, the blessings over wine and bread, but before the festive meal, blessings are said on a variety of foods to symbolize hopes for a good new year.
Seder simply means “order;” it’s a way of celebrating a holiday using specific foods with an associated, ritual meaning.
Sasson, who likes to be called by his first name, demonstrated a Rosh Hashanah seder at an afternoon program on Sunday, Sept. 7, at Keter Torah.
At the heart of the seder, he said, are wishes we request God to grant us in the coming year.
“On Erev Rosh Hashanah, we know that the next day we will go to court before God the judge, and our enemies will come to the court with files and files against us,” said Sasson.
The eight Rosh Hashanah seder foods were chosen because the Hebrew, Aramaic or Arabic word for that food is associated with another Hebrew word that can extend into a wish for the new year.
- Dates, with a wish that our enemies will vanish.
- Leeks, with a wish that our enemies be cut off.
- Beets, with a wish that our enemies will be removed.
- Black-eyed peas, with a wish that our merits increase.
- Zucchini or similar squash, with a wish that any evil verdicts against us be ripped up and that our merits be announced before God.
- Pomegranate, with a wish that we be filled with mitzvot (God’s commandments) like a pomegranate is filled with seeds. (Some say the number of seeds in a pomegranate equals the number of mitzvot in the Torah: 613.)
- A fish head or ram’s head, with a wish that God will make us like the head and not the tail. (If a ram’s head is used, it also reminds us of the binding of Isaac.)
- Apple and honey, with a wish that God will renew for us a good and sweet year.
The seder leader holds each fruit in the right hand while explaining the meaning of the food and reciting the blessing for the food and the wish associated with it. The entire ceremony takes only about 15 or 20 minutes, said the rabbi.
Sasson, 55, was ordained as a rabbi and trained as a cantor in Israel, where he was born. His family came from Iraq, and his father was a cantor at their synagogue.
The rabbi said he became a cantor himself in 1973, when he was 14. He was at the synagogue in Jerusalem with his family when the Yom Kippur War broke out.
“Most of the men were called up to the army, including my father,” he said. “When we came back for the afternoon service, I became the cantor.”
Before he moved to Detroit from Israel in 1990, he hadn’t worked as a congregational rabbi.
As an application engineer for an Israeli company, Robomatics, he worked on contract for GM. Eventually he joined the GM staff.
He never felt completely at home at synagogue services that followed Ashkenazi (European) custom.
Sephardic services, especially for the High Holidays, are very different, he said. “The main prayers are the same, but all the poems and ‘extras’ are different, and the tunes for singing the prayers are different.”
He soon discovered Detroit’s Sephardic community. Founded in 1917, the community originally got together only for social events and High Holiday services. Members met at the Zionist Cultural Center in Southfield, the Oak Park Jewish Community Center or the chapel at Beth Achim (now the home of Akiva Hebrew Day School). By the 1990s, they were holding regular Shabbat services.
When the community learned that Sasson could read Torah and chant the prayers in the Sephardic style, they completely embraced him, he said. He left GM in 1991 and became the congregation’s rabbi in 1992.
Keter Torah dedicated its building, at the corner of Orchard Lake and Walnut Lake roads, in 2002.
Sasson said he tends to use Turkish and Greek tunes for chanting the prayers, rather than those associated with the Jewish communities from Egypt, Syria and Iraq. “Those are more Arabic-sounding, and the younger generations don’t like them as much,” he said.
Ashkenazi Rosh Hashanah Symbols
Many Jewish families of Ashkenazi heritage do something similar to a Rosh Hashanah seder, using various foods as simanim — signs — to express good wishes for the coming year.
Most are similar to the foods used by Sephardi Jews, with the exception of black-eyed peas. Instead, most Ashkenazim express a wish for increased merit with carrots; the Yiddish word for carrots, mehren, is similar to the Yiddish word for more, mehr.
In recent years, some families have begun to make wishes using food puns in English. For example, raisins and celery can indicate a wish for a raise in salary, and pureed (whirled) peas can indicate a wish for world peace.
What food puns can you think of to express a wish for the coming year?
By Barbara Lewis, Contributing Writer/Photos by Brett Mountain