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Consider the seder: a pandemic-proof, traditional way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah

Looking for a pandemic-proof way to celebrate the New Year?

Consider the seder — It’s not just for Passover.

Of course, many Askhenazi Jews associate seders primarily with the exodus from Egypt. But Rosh Hashanah has its own long tradition of ritual meals. First mentioned in the Talmud, the Rosh Hashanah seder evolved over centuries in cities that were home to Sephardic and Mizrahi communities — like Kolkata, India.

That’s where author and travel guide Rahel Musleah grew up, steeped in this ritual. For Musleah, who was born into a Kolkatan Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad, the Rosh Hashanah seder is one of the central celebrations of the Jewish new year — and one she still observes it with her children, years later.

“I get goosebumps,” she said, describing the blessings with which her family opens the meal. “It’s a specific moment when our curses are turned into blessings.”

Today, the seder is popular in places where Sephardic and Mizrahi communities have a strong presence, like Israel and Los Angeles. And in this year of plague, it’s coming to the fore throughout the Jewish world. The coronavirus pandemic has made home-based High Holiday practices more important than ever, and many Jews unfamiliar with the seder will be attending one — or even organizing their own — for the first time. Some synagogues are hosting webinars to familiarize congregants with seder basics. Haggadot.com, a website that specializes in DIY Passover resources, developed a Rosh Hashanah haggadah as a key part of its pandemic-era High Holiday programming. And on Facebook groups for Jewish clergy, rabbis have been swapping hosting tips.

Rabbi Simon Stratford of Temple Sholom in Blue Ash, Ohio is one of them. He’s planning to introduce his flock to the Rosh Hashanah seder as part of a slate of virtual High Holiday programming. “I think it offers us a really unique opportunity to present symbols of the holiday and for people to uncover new meaning from the foods that we’ll eat,” he said.

Want to brush up on your seder basics before attending one at your own synagogue? Looking for a way to add meaning and structure to Rosh Hashanah celebrations at home? However you’re planning to celebrate the holiday, here’s your how-to.

How did the seder start?

In the Talmud, a rabbi named Abaye advises his followers to celebrate the Jewish new year by eating seasonal foods that symbolize prosperity. Among the foods he named are pumpkins, rubia (a vegetable similar to green beans), leeks, beets and dates. Later commentators added to Abaye’s guidance, stipulating that the consumption of these foods should be accompanied by wishes and blessings for the new year.

Over the centuries, that tradition evolved and expanded. In addition to the five foods named by Abaye, Rosh Hashanah seder tables might contain apples, carrots, fish, or the head of a sheep. Communities in different parts of the Jewish diaspora added and removed foods based on what was available or meaningful to them: For example, Musleah said, her Baghdadi ancestors dispensed with the fish because its name sounded too much like the inauspicious Hebrew word for “worry.”

So what happens during the seder?

The core of the seder is a series of blessings, known as simanim, that describe the significance of the various seder foods. Simanim may draw on a food’s physical properties, or they may take their symbolism from a food’s Hebrew name. For example, the pomegranate’s many seeds represent good deeds, while dates represent the end of hatred because their Hebrew name, tamar, is related to the Hebrew word for “end.” Ultimately, each blessing articulates a wish for the year ahead.

Seder tables vary greatly, but these are the most common foods and the wishes they represent.

  • Dates represent the end of hatred and the triumph of friendship and community.
  • Pomegranates represent good deeds.
  • Green beans represent prosperity, for ourselves and others.
  • Apples represent sweetness in the year ahead.
  • Beets represent the defeat of our enemies. (A more modern interpretation: They represent freedom from the forces that constrain us.)
  • Leeks, chives, and scallions represent the hope that our enemies will be “cut off.” (Again, modern seders often rephrase this as a wish for friendship.)
  • Pumpkins are a reminder to count our blessings.
  • Carrots represent positive judgments from God.
  • Fish represents abundance and fertility.
  • The head of sheep (or fish) represents our wish to be leaders, rather than followers, in the year ahead.

Umm, I’m not so psyched about the sheep’s head. And I can’t find all these foods. What do I do?

When it comes to the “head,” easily the least palatable item on the table, there are plenty of alternatives. Musleah, a vegetarian, uses a head of lettuce. You can also embrace your kitschy side and serve fish-shaped crackers or candy.

This is where the seder’s adaptability comes in handy. Whether you’re limiting supermarket visits or you just truly loathe beets, swap out problem items with foods that have a similar symbolic meaning for you.

You can also take an arts-and-crafts approach to the seder table. Take a cue from lifestyle blogger Rebekah Lowin, whose pandemic-era seder plate replaced hard-to-find items with paper cutouts. If you have kids, the DIY route may even be more fun.

Are we supposed to eat all the foods on the table?

Also up to you. You can treat the foods as symbols only: Many, like the pomegranate, make for beautiful table decor and some, like the pumpkin, can be difficult to prepare. But some people plan Rosh Hashanah meals around the symbolic foods, using recipes that incorporate some or all of them. If you’re looking for meal-planning inspiration, check out My Jewish Learning’s recipe list.

Are there haggadahs to guide me through the Rosh Hashanah seder?

We’re so glad you asked that: Yes, there are. As with Passover, haggadahs vary in content and length. Some contain just the core simanim; others include additional prayers; still more come with explanations, stories, and activities for children. Here’s a few options to get you started on your search:

  • Stephen Wise Temple Haggadah: This quick and easy haggadah includes simple simanim as well as some familiar prayers, like a Kiddush and Shehechiyanu.

  • Kol HaOt Haggadah: Kol HaOt, a Jewish arts organization based in Jerusalem, produced a haggadah that provides an overview of the seder as well as detailed explanations of each siman. Available in English, Spanish, Russian, or Hebrew, the haggadah also comes with some creative activities, like a downloadable placemat and instructions to make origami pomegranates. This is a great option for those new to the Rosh Hashanah seder who want a crash course in its history and significance.

  • “Apples and Pomegranates: A Rosh Hashanah Seder:” Written by Musleah herself, this haggadah is geared towards families and young children, and it includes fun stories and songs in addition to the seder’s core blessings. This year, Musleah is running a webinar on the seder; learn more and register here.

  • Four Toasts Rosh Hashanah Seder: Haggadot.com released an accessible haggadah for those celebrating Rosh Hashanah at home. The haggadah includes explanations of the wordplay behind the simanim and some reflective exercises. If you want your seder to spark a discussion, this is the haggadah for you.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.

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