While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are certainly the most important and sacred of Jewish holidays throughout the Diaspora, people who hail from different parts of the globe mark the High Holidays in varying ways. For Sephardic Jews, traditions may be similar to Ashkenazi, but customs and even foods differ based on regions and interpretations of Jewish law.
One of the marked differences is that Sephardic Jews begin the traditional prayer services of repentance, or Selichot, 40 days before Yom Kippur, instead of 10 days.
“Our custom is to start, according to Shulchan Aruch [a code of Jewish law written by Sephardi Joseph Caro], 40 days before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, because that 40 days was the time for forgiveness,” said Rabbi Rouben Arieh, spiritual leader of Ohr Hamizrach Sephardic Center.
Founded by Iranian Jews, the shul is about 80 percent Iranian now, according to Ohr Hamizrach executive director Daniel Golfeiz. Membership has grown from its original core of young Persian men escaping an oppressive Iranian regime to more than 150 families. That number swells to 350 to 400 for High Holiday services.
“I would say our second generation now is in full swing. The kids that were born and raised here and attended the day school here are married now and have their own children,” Golfeiz said. “And they are part of us and they have their own minyan in the shul. We are very proud of them.”
For most Jews, the commemoration of the High Holidays and the new year means sweet foods, and a hope for a sweet year to come. For Ashkenazim that means dipping apples in honey.
“The Sephardic tradition goes, we have more than apple and honey,” Golfeiz said.
Arieh agrees. “The Ashkenazi, they eat the honey most,” he said. “A lot of honeys. But we’re not used to so much honey.”
For Sephardic Jews, dates, honey made from dates and pomegranates help ring in that sweet new year.
“Basically we start with dates,” Golfeiz said. “Obviously, everything is sweet that night. We don’t eat anything that is not sweet.”
Like the Ashkenazi, the Sephardim eat foods that carry symbolic weight and have prescribed blessings that accompany the food.
For black-eyed beans, the Hebrew name is rubiyah. “And rubiyah comes from a word that means to increase and get married and to multiply like the beans. And also should be for increase of our merit,” Arieh said.
The name of the squash is k’ra’a and is similar to kara, which means “tearing.” The blessing for the squash is, “May it be your will, God, to tear away all evil decrees against us, as our merits are proclaimed before you.”
Pomegranates are for sweetness, but also to encourage Jews to perform many mitzvot during the coming year.
“We do a lot of mitzvots, because the pomegranate, they say it has 613 seeds, is equivalent to the 613 mitzvot prescribed in the Torah,” Golfeiz said.
Sephardic Jews also eat leeks and beets, but perhaps the tradition most different between the two cultures is the food eaten to remind Jews to be leaders, not followers. For Ashkenazi the tradition is the head of a fish. For the Sephardim it is the head of a lamb or sheep.
“We should be the head of the people, not the tail,” Arieh said. “We should be above life. That’s why we are taking the head of sheep, because of the sheep that Abraham used instead of Isaac for the sacrifice.”
Golfeiz said that although sheep or lamb heads used to be difficult to procure, that’s not the case now.
“In the past we had a hard time getting it, but right now Seven Mile Market has it and it’s in vacuum pack,” he said. “And also we get it from Shlomo’s meat market in Baltimore.”
He said the head can be prepared like a soup, boiling it with traditional Persian spices, including turmeric, but nothing bitter.
Another Persian tradition is abgoosht, Arieh said, a stew made from lamb or chicken, chickpeas, beans and potatoes.
But for Yonathan Lederman, proprietor of the kosher food truck Yoni’s Pizza Café, boiling the sheep’s head in sweet fruits such as dates and figs is a tradition in his family. Lederman, who grew up in Jerusalem and is of Moroccan descent, said his family marks the holiday with both traditions — the head of a sheep and the head of a fish.