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Mietkiewicz on the Rosh Hashanah seder: Pass the sheep’s head, please

Mmmmmm … sheep's head. (Per Arne Slotte/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

What, no sheep’s head on your Rosh Hashanah table? How about the head of a carp? Or some black-eyed peas, gourds or carrots? If you think that festive New Year’s foods begin and end with apples and honey, then you’re missing half the fun. Leave some room on your table for a Rosh Hashanah seder (and a whole lot of puns.)

As opposed to that other one in the spring, this seder revolves around foods that are reminiscent of good omens for the Jewish people. For example, before we eat carrots at the Rosh Hashanah table, we traditionally ask “that our merits increase,” because carrot in Yiddish is mehren, which can also mean “to increase.”

As MyJewishLearning.com points out, the seder has its roots in the Babylonian Talmud, (Horayot 12a), in which the scholar Abaye suggests people should make a habit of eating foods like pumpkin, a bean-like vegetable called “rubia,” leeks, beets and dates. According to Abbaye, “each of these grows quickly and serves as a positive omen for one’s actions during the coming year.” In other words, puns to make you think.

The Hebrew word for gourd, kara, sounds like the Hebrew words for both “tearing” and “reading.” As that vegetable is eaten, we recite this prayer: “May it be the will of our Heavenly Father that any bad decree be torn up and that our merits be read before you.”

More than just wordplay, Rabbi Yehudah Prero suggests these foods can actually trigger a deeper psychological reaction that’s appropriate to this time of year. By eating these foods, “a person realizes that now is the time he needs to be asking for these good things, because now is the time he is being judged. As soon as the person realizes that now is the time that he is being judged, he will realize that omens alone will not be enough for his salvation, and that repentance is needed.”

Although some sites emphasize that the Rosh Hashanah seder is quite fluid, others present formalized rituals in English and Hebrew. To set the proper spiritual tone, the Jewish Agency suggests reciting certain verses many times, such as: “Ki imecha mekor chayim, be’orecha nireh-or” (And with you is the source of life, and in your light shall we see light).

Noam Zion of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute recommends using the seder to inspire discussions around the New Year’s table and ask questions like:

  • Today is the birthday of the world. What aspect of the creation most impresses you?
  • Name one mitzvah you are proud of having participated in over the past year.
  • Today is the beginning of new possibilities. What impossible dream would you pursue if you had enough money to take off for a year from your present occupation?

Gilda Angel has taken some symbolic foods and performed some gastronomical magic. Her Turkish-inspired Rosh Hashanah meal includes keftes de prasa (leek croquettes), lubiya (black-eyed peas), pollo con susam (sesame seed chicken), borekas de calabaza (pumpkin turnovers) and tishpishti (honey nut cake.) Apparently, Angel didn’t deign to include all the traditional foods in her meal – so I’ve saved you the trouble and tracked down a classic recipe for Sheep’s Head Soup.

And what about that sheep’s head? Having a head on your table is a good simmon (sign) for the coming year, as we pray to be “the head and not the tail.” If that sounds somewhat cryptic, Chabad.org explains that we should “reconnect to our head, the true higher authority,” and reject a moral vision that is shortsighted and influenced by mob thinking.

If you are sheepish about locking eyes with a lamb on your Rosh Hashanah table, the rabbis understand. You are welcome to substitute it for the head of a fish. If that’s still a deal breaker, the folks at TorahFamily.net have come up with another alternative: a head of lettuce.

And finally, not only have the folks at Kol HaOt produced a marvellous downloadable Rosh Hashanah seder kit, they have also updated the food-related omens, and thrown in some puns, such as:

  • What to recite before you eat figs and pickles? “May we fig-ure our way out of every pickle.”
  • On carobs: “This year, may we carab-out our fellow man and woman more than ever.”
  • When a salad consisting of peas and thyme is placed on the table, say: “May we merit peace in our time!”
  • Bring out the condiments and recite: “May we mustard our strength so that we can find the time to ‘ketchup’ with family and friends and relish all the little moments in life.”
  • And before dining on some fava and black-eyed peas? Isn’t it obvious? ”May we always find fava in thine eyes.”

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