The High Holidays. We know them well, right? They are the time for us to go to synagogue with the desire to understand ourselves and our behavior: to set right our misdeeds before God and with our community, to resolve to do better, to hope the slate may be wiped clean. It is a time to see everyone we may not have seen all year, to deeply contemplate the meaning of tzedakah, to shed tears over loved ones passed, to commiserate with kids squirming in their seats, and to just make it through the fast one more year.
But seders for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
This year in Seattle, Panim Hadashot — a wonderful new organization dedicated to bringing greater personal meaning to Jewish rituals and traditions through discussions, small Shabbat gatherings, and feasts — is holding unique seders for both erev Rosh Hashanah and the meal before the fast on Yom Kippur.
Founded and led by Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Panim Hadashot (“New Faces of Judaism”) will gather the community in the beautiful dining hall of Bastyr University for parve ritual meals that it hopes will spark new traditions during the Days of Awe.
Although Panim Hadashot is bringing what seems to be a new concept to this season of ancient teachings and practiced rituals, the idea of a seder for Rosh Hashanah — full of ritual foods and discussions of the meanings of the holiday and wonderful smells and tastes —is not new.
The Gemarrah, in tractate Kersius declares: “At the beginning of each year a person should accustom him [her] self to eating gourds, leeks, fenugreek, beets and dates,” all of which represent good “omens” or have positive connotations.
One interpretation of why the authors of the Gemarrah advise us to eat these foods is that ingesting them will remind us that merely eating the “good” will not be enough for us to be seen as truly good on this Judgment Day; we also have to search our own hearts for goodness and repent the bad deeds in which we have indulged. Another view indicates that by eating that which represents goodness, we are asking to be remembered for a good year internally and not overtly petitioning on our own behalf.
Blessings and Yehi Ratzon (“May it be Your will…”) prayers are said for each of the foods stated in the Gemarrah, and for a few others that have attracted Rosh Hashanah significance over the centuries such as challas, apples and honey, pomegranates, fish and the head of a sheep or a fish.
How these particular foods became honored on Rosh Hashanah lies with the ancient practice of matching the name of a thing with a concept whose name has a similar sound. For example, the Hebrew name for leek is karti, which sounds like karet, meaning “to cut out” or “to destroy.”
So, the prayer related to leeks might be “Yehi ratzon, may it be Your will to destroy my adversaries,” or “Yehi ratzon, may You help me in destroying my will to do (a) bad deed,” or “Yehi ratzon, may you help me by cutting out my will to yell at my kids,” or whatever “Yehi ratzon” is most appropriate for you in your life. Of course, the leader of the seder will choose a meaning he or she feels is most appropriate, but this seder tradition leaves much room for individuals to bring their own intimacies to the prayer.
However, because this referencing practice is ancient and most Jews have moved away from the Middle East where these particular edibles are common, other foods are also referenced as having the same name as the original ones mentioned in the Gemarrah.
For example, rubiyah, the Hebrew name for fenugreek, is also the name for beans and black-eyed peas, two foods that were probably common in geographic areas where fenugreek was either difficult to acquire or unknown. The sounds-like concept word for rubiyah is yirbu, meaning “to increase.” So, while some seders direct you to eat black-eyed peas for the prayer “Yehi ratzon, may it be Your will to increase my virtues,” in others (Panim Hadashot’s, for example) you will be eating leek fritters for the same prayer concept.
Similarly, while the word k’ra, phonetically related to the word for “proclaim” or “to tear,” was known to the ancients as meaning “gourd,” k’ra is also found to mean “red lentils.” So, although the Panim Hadashot seder will serve a savory pumpkin-filled pastry to be eaten accompanying the prayer entreating: “May it be Your will that our merits be proclaimed before you” or “…that the decree of our sentence be torn up,” you might find the same prayer has you eating a lovely red lentil stew in another place, another year.
But that lentil stew will not be spicy. Traditionally, on the High Holidays we avoid foods that are very sour or spicy so that we can better concentrate on hoping internally for a “good, sweet year.” Instead, we eat sweet foods (of course), such as apples with honey, honey cake and any fabulous traditional family sweets.
Many of these foods have lore attached to them. The lore that has developed for honey cake is well-known: Ask a friend to give you a piece of the cake on Rosh Hashanah and you will not have to ask them for anything else all year. Or, if it has been declared in heaven that a person is to become a beggar, through this request for food the decree has been fulfilled and can be annulled.
Traditions about eating pomegranates on the New Year abound, but one of the most enriching is the notion that there are 613 mitzvot, according to tradition the same number of seeds in a pomegranate, making the fruit the embodiment of good deeds.
Fish are eaten because they are so numerous that consuming them will promote a prosperous year.
The head of a sheep (yes, really eaten in many Jewish cultures over the ages) represents the ram that was sacrificed by Abraham when God released him from having to give up Isaac. Eating any “head” — sheep, fish or, for beef, maybe just the tongue — also promotes the idea of being at the “head” in the world and not at the “tail.”
Challahs for the holidays may be studded with dried fruits for sweetness and shaped into rounds for the cycle of the year, or formed into ladders, suggesting Jacob’s ladder (where again we want to be at the top!).
What about a seder for Yom Kippur when we know we will be fasting for 25 hours? On the day before Yom Kippur it is as much a mitzvah to eat twice as much as usual as it is to fast for the Day of Atonement! So, clearly a “Feast Before the Fast” must live up to its title so that worshipers will have the strength and stamina to get through the rigors of the following holy day. Practical suggestions are that salty foods and foods that produce heat in the body, such as garlic, spices and eggs, should be avoided to inhibit thirst.
But what will be the substance of a ritual meal that must also prepare the mind, the heart and the soul for the holiest and most difficult day of the year? Although Rosh Hashanah seders have been celebrated over the Jewish millennia, and indeed Panim Hadashot held its first last year, a Yom Kippur “Feast Before the Fast” is a new creation. Rabbi Gartenberg has divided the Yom Kippur seder into seven parts, each relating a central theme of the holiday to a symbolic food, in keeping with referenced lore and literature from Yom Kippur texts.
The first part, called “Chet: The Acknowledgement of Sin,” references red as the color of sin (for the red string tied around to neck of the goat sent out into the wilderness carrying the sins of the Children of Israel). The food eaten will be a salad of roasted tomatoes, sweet red peppers and beets.
The second part, “Teshuvah: Turning to Repentance: Revealing the Truth,” brings foods that must be opened up to reveal a hidden truth, for example, the peeling away of artichoke leaves to find the heart, or the discovering of a sweet/savory filling in a kreplach (also a carb—highly recommended for stamina!)
“Tefilah: The Self-Reflection of Prayer” begins with the ephemeral and a whiff of rose water. Then we reflect on Jonah’s relationship with God and the gourd vine that Jonah loves by eating crunchy toasted pumpkin seeds.
“Tzedakah: The Act of Righteousness” takes us to the definition of righteous acts in Leviticus, which directs us to leave the “small grapes” (unripe bunches) on the vine during harvest so the poor may collect them. We eat tiny, sweet grapes as we reflect on our own acts of tzedakah.
In “Kapparah: Atonement” the goat who “carries away” our sins comes up again, and in reflection we eat fresh, white goat cheese in pure, fragrant olive oil.
“Purity: Taharah” is accomplished with the ritual washing of hands and brings us to “Mahzor: The Cycle of the Year” when we dip pieces of round challah in honey and wish all at the seder L’Shana Tova! And then comes the meal!
To get more information on the Panim Hadashot High Holiday seders and to receive registration forms call Cynthia at 877-643-7274.