There are many meaningful symbols and associations we have with Rosh Hashanah, but is the opportunity to learn some Ivrit (עברית, "Hebrew") one of them? Jews of Sephardic and Mizrahi origins have included a Rosh Hashanah seder to welcome in the new year. Similar to Pesach and Tu B’shvat, in more recent years, this ceremony has been adopted by Jews of all different backgrounds. It is based on the Hebrew language and foods that can be used to wish each other a happy and healthy New Year! Is this something you already do? Do you have any personal stories or traditions to add? Is this something you could bring in to your home and/or educational settings? Most of all, how can you add your personal touch to make it accessible, relevant, and fun?
Seder Night on ‘New Years’?
One of the best known traditions of Pesach is the seder. The word seder (סדר) literally means "order," as there is a set order that is followed in how we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Lesser known are the seders for Tu B’Shvat and Rosh Hashanah. The seder for Rosh Hashanah is first hinted at in the Talmud in a discussion about meaning in omens:
אָמַר אביי הָשַׁתָּא דאמרת סימנא מִלְּתָא הִיא [לְעוֹלָם] יְהֵא רָגִיל למיחזי בָּרֵישׁ שֶׁתָּא קָרָא וְרוּבְיָא כָּרַתִּי וסילקא וְתַמְרֵי
Abaye said: Now that you said that an omen is a significant matter, a person should always be accustomed to seeing these on Rosh Hashanah: Squash, and fenugreek, leeks, and chard, and dates, as each of these grows quickly and serves as a positive omen for one’s actions during the coming year. (Talmud Bavli, Horayot 12a)
The foods used in the seder hold meaningful significance. This quote reveals that eating a food can be symbolic of something else, based on a word play or pun of the food’s name in Hebrew or Aramaic:
“It is difficult to trace how the ceremony evolved from that talmudic mention to its current form. According to cookbook author Gilda Angel (Sephardic Holiday Cooking), ‘It is told that when the Babylonian scholar Hai Gaon (939-1039) left the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, his students would bring him a basket filled with different fruits over which he recited various blessings and biblical verses.’ The Baghdadi Rabbi Hakham Yosef Hayyim (1832-1909) mentions the ceremony in his compilation of Jewish law and practice.” (My Jewish Learning)
What Comprises a Seder?
The seder starts in the same way any other festive meal does: lighting candles, kiddush (קִדּוּשׁ, "blessing over the wine") and hamotzi (הַמּוֹצִיא, "blessing over the challah"). Once the ‘regular rituals’ are completed, we begin with the seder or the simanim (סִימָנִים, "symbols"). A variety of dishes may be served, centered around specific foods including dates, pomegranates, apples and honey, leeks, beets, and carrots. Using the Hebrew or Aramaic name of the food and connecting the root of this word (see below) to a word with the same root, a blessing is given before eating each food, putting forth a hope for the coming year. To better understand this, we need to understand a bit more about Ivrit.
The Beauty of Ivrit and its Place in the Rosh Hashanah Seder
The Hebrew language is a far more compact language than English; There are fewer words, and the words that exist are often linked. What does that mean?
Hebrew words are made up of three (or sometimes four) root letters that serve as the base to the word itself. For example, take the three root letters ז-כ-ר (zayin, kaf, and resh). These root letters make up many related words:
- lizkor (לִזְכּוֹר, "to remember")
- zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן, "memory")
- mazkeret (מַזְכֶּרֶת, "souvenir")
- mazkir / mazkira (מַזְכִּיר / מַזְכִּירָה, "secretary")
Which other words with the same root letters ז-כ-ר (zayin-kaf-resh) can you find?
Here’s another example of three-letter root—כ-ת-ב (kaf-tav-vet):
- liktov (לִכְתּוֹב, "to write")
- miktav (מִכְתַּב, "letter")
- katava (כַּתָּבָה, "news story")
- hitkatvoot (הִתְכַּתְּבוּת, "correspondence")
What is the relevance of understanding how the Hebrew language works within Rosh Hashanah? The seder that is explained below is all based on this same principle. Foods were chosen for this ceremony based on the other words that can be made from the same root letters. Through this, various food puns are created and special blessings or hopes for the coming year are shared. For example, hold up a carrot (or גֶזֶר, gezer) and say,
יְהִי רָצון מִלְפָנֶיך ה' אֱלֹקֵינוּ וֶאֱלֹקֵי אֲבותֵינוּ, שתִקְרַערֹעַ גזַר דינֵנוּ וְיִקָרְאוּ לְפָנֶיך זְכֻיותֵינוּ וּבִרְכותֵינוּ
“May it be your will, L-rd our G-d, that that our bad decrees be torn up and our merits and blessings be proclaimed.”
Note that the Hebrew words for "carrot" and "decree" are made up of the same root letters—just the vowels are different.
Which words can you find with the following root letters?
- נ-ה-ג (nun-hay-gimmel) (click here for examples)
- פ-ת-ח (samech-hay-gimmel) (click here for examples)
- ס-ד-ר (nun-hay-gimmel) (click here for examples)
- ש-מ-ר (shin-mem-resh) (click here for examples)
- ג-ד-ל (gimmel-dalet-lamed) (click here for examples)
Here is a great example of a Rosh Hashanah seder from the Schusterman Family Foundation. It contains some more modern and contemporary options, including different connections, associations, or word puns (like celery to reference salary!)
Which of the traditional simanim (symbols) speak to you and why? Which simanim challenge you and why?
Do you feel that any of these simanim are out of date for the time and lifestyle we live in today?
What do you feel is missing that you would like to wish for yourself, your family, your friends, or the world for the coming year?
What meaning can you infuse into your own Rosh Hashanah seder?
- Create a list of puns based on food names in Hebrew and/or English. How could they be incorporated into your Rosh Hashanah Seder? Here are some examples:
- The Hebrew word for carrot is גֶזֶר (gezer). Hold up a carrot and say, "May we find plenty of opportunities this coming year to be to-gezer with our loved ones."
- The Hebrew word for chewing gum is מַסְטִיק (mastik). Hold up a piece of gum and say, "May we think of meaningful resolutions for this New Year, that we must stick to."
- The Hebrew word for juice is מִיץ (mitz). Hold up a cup of juice and and say, "May we find plenty of interest and lasting friendships with all the new people we’ll mitz this year."
- Hold up a nut and say, "May we find it in our hearts to all be more compassion-nut this year."
- Hold up some peas and say, "May we all find inner peas this year, and may we merit peas on Earth."
- Raise a glass of soda and say, "May we all be soda-termined in all that we do and soda-lighted in all we achieve."
Create your own personalized text with illustrations for a Seder Rosh Hashanah, to be used at home or at your place of learning.