For Rosh Hashanah, many Jews eat an apple dipped in honey as an auspicious sign for a sweet new year. The symbolism is clear, and the ritual as easy to pull off as squeezing a bear-shaped plastic bottle of honey.
But what kind of a year could one expect from eating leeks, spinach and a fish head? A year of being a contestant on “Chopped”?
Many Sephardic Jews practice a custom at Rosh Hashanah dinner called yehi ratzones — “may it be God’s will” — which calls for a kind of mini-seder in which a—special blessing is said before eating certain ceremonial foods. Though it’s a custom practiced mainly by Sephardim whose forebears lived in the Ottoman Empire, the idea of eating these special foods at this time of year can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, which mentions that certain fruits and vegetables should be seen on our Rosh Hashanah tables.
In addition to a fish head, Sephardim also serve leeks, beans, squash, dates, pomegranates and a slew of other sweets. The first night, everyone tries not to eat anything sour. The foods are all cooked to be as sweet as possible. Much like apples and honey, the symbolic foods eaten for yehi ratzones also represent the hope for a good coming year.
Many Jews of Ashkenazi origin never heard of the custom. Not only that, but some of the yehi ratzones foods — notably spinach, traditionally served in the form of a cheese-free quajado (a kind of spinach kugel) and — fried leek patties, were found on the family’s seder tables, not at Rosh Hashanah.
Ty Alhadeff, the coordinator of the Sephardic studies program at the University of Washington, is a third-generation Rhodesli, as descendants of the Sephardim from Rhodes are called, and a member of Seattle’s Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, which practices the customs of the Rhodes traditions.
Alhadeff explained that the pairing of blessings and foods during yehi ratzones is, at its heart, Hebrew and Aramaic wordplay — puns that rely on certain words for foods sounding similar to certain Hebrew verb forms.
“It’s like saying ‘May our enemies be mashed like these mashed potatoes,’” Alhadeff explained.
For instance, the Aramaic word “squash” is “karah,” he explained. The Hebrew word connecting it to the blessing is “karah,” a form of the verb meaning “to tear.” Therefore, when squash is eaten during the seder, the accompanying blessing is “May it be Thy will … You should tear up our evil decree, and let there be read before You, our merits.”
A bit more of a stretch is the Aramaic word for leek, karati,,” and the Hebrew word yikaretu,” cut off, as found in the blessing: “May it be Thy will … to cut off our enemies.”
As for the fish head — Alhadeff said he uses fish cheek instead — it’s because the word for head, rosh (as in Rosh Hashanah, literally “head of the year”) figures into the yehi ratzones blessing “May it be Thy will … that we may be on the forefront as the head and not in the background as the tail.”
Alhadeff said there have been some attempts at reinterpretations of the yehi ratzones blessings, which shift the meaning while staying true to the specific foods.
“It’s not about the evil decrees being cut,” he said. For example, Alhadeff said he found a blessing for squash that says, “May the coming year grow as a gourd in the fullness of blessing.”
Many Jews of Ashkenazi origin never heard of any common Sephardic practices, surprisingly. For example, whereas most Ashkenazi Jews will only begin to prepare for and celebrate the High Holidays within the week before Rosh Hashanah, Sephardim begin to prepare on the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, 40 days before Yom Kippur.
We don’t have Reform or Conservative or Orthodox; we all practice together. There are more and less observant individuals, but we practice together and respect each other’s methods.
— Daniel Golfeiz, executive director of the Ohr Hamizrach Sephardic Center
These 40 days represent the time that Moses spent on the Temple Mount to receive the second stone tablets, after the “golden calf error,” said Daniel Golfeiz, executive director of the Ohr Hamizrach Sephardic Center in Baltimore. On each of these 40 days, Sephardic congregations will have numerous minyans every morning so that the entire community will have the opportunity to attend.
Golfeiz explained some of the traditions at his shul. During these 40 days, there are four separate minyans every morning. Each morning, different community members will bring cakes, cookies, soup, lentils or some other small dish because they know that everyone in the community will stop by to attend a minyan at some point in the day. Particularly if someone is remembering the passing of a loved one, people will bring food as a mitzvah in the memory of the deceased.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is only one minyan each day. “On the High Holidays, we only have one minyan so that the grandfather, father and child can all come together,” Golfeiz said. “There are always three generations at least, if not four. We want generations to have a chance to mingle and learn together.”
“We all pray together, regardless of background,” Golfeiz continued. “We don’t have Reform or Conservative or Orthodox; we all practice together. There are more and less observant individuals, but we practice together and respect each other’s methods.”
Another unique practice at Ohr Hamizrach is that the synagogue auctions the right to take the Torah out of the ark. This prevents issues arising when trying to pick someone for the honor and also serves as a way to raise money for the shul.
Another notable difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues is the bimah. The bimah is slanted in Ashkenazi synagogues so that the Torah scroll can be laid out and read. However, in Sephardic synagogues, the bimah is flat for the different style of scroll. While Ashkenazi Torahs are freestanding scrolls, Sephardic Torah scrolls are stored in a standing box that confines them, serving to further protect the scroll.
[email protected] with reporting from JTA