Every holiday has its aura. Pesach has a scrubbed cleanliness; Purim, a cookie-dough indulgence, Sukkot, a back-to-nature thankfulness. Rosh Hashanah has its aura, too. For most of us, it's one that begins a season of awe, judgment and repentance.
For me, the start of a new year is a time of blessing and renewal, a different focus than what often feels like a lofty liturgical solemnity. I'm not suggesting party hats and confetti, just a little more optimism and joyfulness. Except for dipping apples in honey and sharing a holiday dinner, home rituals that create memory are largely missing from Rosh Hashanah.
In this respect, families of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin have a secret to share with the rest of the Jewish world. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, we hold a special ceremony at home, during which we recite blessings over a variety of foods that symbolize our wishes for the new year. The ritual is called a seder yehi ratzon (may it be God's will) because we ask God to guide us and provide us with bounty, strength and peace in the year ahead. Many of the foods are blessed with puns on their Hebrew names that turn into wishes that our enemies will be destroyed.
The Talmudic origins of the seder dates back to a discussion by Rabbi Abaye about omens that carry significance (Horayot 12a). He suggested that at the beginning of each new year, people should make a habit of eating the following foods that grow in profusion and so symbolize prosperity: pumpkin, a bean-like vegetable called rubia, leeks, beets and dates. Jewish communities throughout the world have adapted this practice, creating seders of their own.
So my shopping list for Rosh Hashanah includes fat, juicy, red-skinned pomegranates; glossy, sticky-sweet dates; apples that will blush spicy pink when they are cooked into preserves with a drop of red food coloring and whole cloves; savory pumpkin; pungent leeks or scallions, foot-long string beans (available in Indian shops), and deep-green spinach. Often, my parents and my children prepare the foods together. It's an art to separate the jewel-like pomegranate seeds without splattering their scarlet juice all over the kitchen counter; to split the dates, stuff them with walnut halves and arrange them in concentric ovals on a newly polished silver dish.
The foods become vessels for meaning, effective because of their tangibility.
"The physicality of the seder is what makes it special," says Rabbi Karyn Kedar, author of "Dance of the Dolphin: Finding Prayer, Perspective and Meaning in the Stories of Our Lives" (Jewish Lights, 2001), who has adopted the practice through her Sephardic husband. "It's not just cerebral. It's 'getting dirty' with Judaism. It starts with cutting onions in the kitchen and ends with blessing. Both converge in being Jewish."
We begin the seder itself with a series of biblical verses that carry mystical significance, followed by a declaration that always sends shivers down my spine: Tahel shanah u'virkhoteha! Let the year begin and all its blessings!
Then come the blessings: First, the dates. "May it be your will, God, that all enmity will end. May we date this new year with peace and happiness. (The word for end, yitamu, sounds like tamar, the Hebrew word for date.)
Second, the pomegranate: May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds.
Apples: May it be Your will, God, to renew for us a year as good and sweet as honey.
String beans (rubia or lubia): May it be Your will, God, to increase our merits. (The word for increase, irbu, resembles the word rubia, bean.)
Pumpkin or gourd (k'ra): As we eat this gourd, may it be your will, God, to guard us. Tear away all evil decrees against as our merits are called before you. (K'ra resembles the words "tear" and "called.")
Spinach or beetroot leaves (selek): May it be your will, God, to banish all the enemies who might beat us. (Selek resembles the word for banish, yistalku.)
Leeks or scallions (karti): May it be your will, God, to cut off our enemies. (karti resembles yikartu, the word for "cut off.")
Originally, the seder called for a fish head to represent fertility, and a sheep's head to symbolize our wish to be heads, not tails -- leaders, not stragglers. The sheep's head (the brains were removed and cooked) also served as a reminder of the ram that saved Isaac's life. We recite the story of the binding of Isaac on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In my family, we discontinued using these last two items: the fish because its Hebrew name, dag, sounds like the Hebrew word for worry, d'agah; the sheep's head, for obvious reasons.
What does it mean to ask for a good, sweet year? What constitutes sweetness? What shapes goodness?
I think it's harmony and wholeness we are asking for -- the ability to take the parts of our lives that may satisfy us disparately and put them together so that they create contentment. Through these simple foods, we ask for the ability to appreciate the basic goodness of our lives.
Rabbi Kedar, who lived in Israel for 10 years, recalls that after a terrorist attack, mothers who picked their children up from school let them pick any candy or ice cream they wanted from the corner grocery store.
"We wanted to bring sweetness and comfort to their lives in the guise of chocolate," she said. "Blessings, like chocolate, sometimes seem like a luxury."
Because the seder doesn't focus exclusively on sweet symbols, it mirrors the realities of our lives. The bitter truths, fears and enmities we live with mix with the sweetness. Life is not just beginnings; it is also endings. It's not just honeyed dates, it's also the sting of scallions. It is about uncovering blessings despite the elusiveness of peace.
After I take the tiniest bit of scallion possible for the blessing, I wash away the unpleasant taste with sweet apples and dates. Maybe it's just my aversion to scallions, but through this small act, I can increase the positive while asking to be shielded from the negative.
Finding direction and beauty in our lives through the basic fruits of the earth allows us to push aside the chaos that clutters our days and uncover the goodness and sweetness of time. Often, said Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, we use up so much energy deflecting the onslaught of the world that we become numb to its beauty.
"It's like being in a bakery too long," Cardin explains in her book, "The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Life-Cycle Events" (Behrman House, 2000). "The smell is still there, but we no longer notice."
She recommends trying to move through our days as if we always had a 5-year-old at our sides to point out all the important things we usually miss: the bugs on the sidewalk, whose turn it is to sit in the front seat, the color of the M&M that tastes best.
The seder points to a specific direction by which to achieve sweetness: the blessing of the pomegranate asks that our lives be filled with mitzvot. Some mitzvot -- like lighting Shabbat candles and blowing the shofar -- are a language of action that marks us as Jews, Cardin writes. A second type of mitzvah includes acts of fairness, justice and lovingkindness that we do for each other, from honoring parents to visiting the sick. "Our lives are lived in the details of the everyday," she says. "Taking a co-worker to lunch for a job well done, writing to praise a company for its stance on the environment, thanking a teacher for an inspiring lecture, showing good humor and patience with those around us while waiting in line -- each of these brings a bit more goodness into the world. They are the keys to the storehouse of holiness. It is in the performance of these humble deeds that we become more."
While it is up to each of us to take responsibility to "become more," we ask for God's partnership in the process. That's how our Rosh Hashanah blessings differ from secular New Year's resolutions. God's guidance enables us to rely on our own strengths.
"The Jewish new year isn't about losing 10 pounds or quitting smoking," Kedar said. "Nor does 'shanah tovah' translate as 'Happy New Year.' The word 'tov' -- good -- is not 'Was the movie good?' It resonates back to Rosh Hashanah as the time God created the world and saw that it was good. Shanah tovah means that we hope the foundations of our lives should have a goodness to them."
Tahel shanah u'virkhoteha! Let the new year begin with all its goodness and all its blessings.
Rahel Musleah wrote "Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah" (Lerner/Kar-Ben, 2004). Her Web site is www.rahelsjewishindia.com.