Flavors Of Rosh Hashanah: Jews Of The World Follow Different Food Customs

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After shaping her cookies, Susanna Klein uses the edge of the counter to get them out of the mold.
After shaping her cookies, Susanna Klein uses the edge of the counter to get them out of the mold.

In conversation with another Talmudic sage, the sage Abaye (who lived about 1,700 years ago) observed: “Since you say that symbols matter, people should become accustomed on Rosh Hashanah to seeing squash, black-eyed peas, leeks, beets, and dates” (Horayot 12a). Another version of the text says “people should become accustomed to eating” those foods (Keritot 6a). In Babylonian Aramaic, the names of those foods suggest good wishes; or perhaps those vegetables simply grow vigorously.

Around the world, Jewish communities have remembered Abaye’s preference for special foods in different ways. All across northern Europe, Ashkenazi Jews could not get exactly the same foods, so they began their meals on Rosh Hashanah with something sweet, apples and honey. Conveniently, apples get ripe in the early fall, and beekeepers harvest their honey then, too.

John Klein, who grew up in the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, N.Y., fondly remembers a Rosh Hashanah sweet treat that his Syrian great-grandmother would bake: “ma’amoul,” semolina cookies filled with a mixture of nuts and dates.

Some communities eat the whole menu mentioned by Abaye, and even additional foods, in a complete “seder,” each food accompanied by a prayer punning on its name. The word for squash, for example, in Aramaic, is “kera,” the same as the Hebrew word for “tear.” So on eating the zucchini, participants recite “may it be your will to tear up evil decrees against us.” In English we might say, “to squash” those decrees.

Rabbi Sasson Natan grew up in a Sepharadi community in his native Jerusalem. He came to Michigan 25 years ago to work as an engineer for General Motors and eventually found Keter Torah, a West Bloomfield congregation of Jews predominantly from the Mediterranean Arab countries. Years later, he returned to serve as rabbi of Keter Torah.

Klein assembles her ma’amoul cookies.
Klein assembles her ma’amoul cookies.

According to Natan, people in his community used to have this seder after the blessing on bread before each meal on Rosh Hashanah, day and night. Now, people generally hold the seder only at the evening meals. Some start the meal without this ceremony and then say the prayers as they serve salads with the special ingredients.

Rabbi Michael Cohen of Young Israel of Oak Park was born in England, but his forebears come from an Iraqi-Jewish community in India, which observes this full course of ritual foods at the start of the Rosh Hashanah meal. They might also have the head of a fish, as a symbol for fertility, and the head of a ram, recalling the near sacrifice of Isaac, which serves as the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah.

Natan remembers when he was growing up that “they told me not to eat anything spicy on Rosh Hashanah. We want a sweet year, so no spicy sauces.”

Later, he researched the literature and found no basis for extending the custom this way. “But still, in many places, people do still avoid spicy foods on Rosh Hashanah.”

Indeed, Cohen remembers that his Indian Iraqi community does avoid eating anything sharp-flavored at Rosh Hashanah meals. Rabbi Nachman Levine of Oak Park observes that followers of the customs of Chabad Lubavitch also avoid spicy or sour foods, and that at least one acquaintance in that community does not eat anything spicy or sour until Simchat Torah.

Finished ma’amoul cookies

Ashkenazi Jews generally begin festival meals — after Kiddush with wine — eating sweet challah. Natan reports that Sephardi communities serve water breads, dismissing sweet challah as just a kind of cake. Ashkenazi Jews generally serve round challahs on Rosh Hashanah. Natan reports that Sephardi communities serve their breads in straight forms (like the letter vav, which has a value of six. Two times six equals 12, the number of breads arrayed in the Temple from one Shabbat to the next).

On Rosh Hashanah, Ashkenazi Jews dip their challah in honey and wish each other a sweet year. Sephardi Jews dip their bread in salt first, then sugar and then repeat the process two more times, following the advice of Ben Ish Hai (Haim Yosef, the famous sage of Baghdad, who died in 1909).

Cohen notes that some Sephardi Jews avoid honey on Rosh Hashanah — who wants to associate the New Year with bees and their stings? That’s why Ben Ish Hai recommended using sugar to sweeten the bread.

Some Ashkenazi Jews avoid nuts on Rosh Hashanah because they may damage the voice or because the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of “nut” approximates the value of “sin.”

Whether we observe the symbolic foods at our Rosh Hashanah meals,  only some or none at all, Jews of all flavors and from all communities wish each other the blessings of a good new year.

By Louis Finkelman | Contributing Writer

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