“The purpose of ritual is to render the invisible visible,” wrote Cantor Alan Lew. Planning a memorable Rosh Hashanah meal as a family can enrich your holiday experience and strengthen your connection to Jewish tradition. Rosh Hashanah is a perfect time to get creative while reflecting on the past year and celebrating the new one. Revel in new perspectives, new tastes, new traditions and new understandings of ancient traditions.
Food, of course, is a major focus for all Jewish holidays. It’s fairly well-known that the round challah served on Rosh Hashanah represents the cycle of the year. On Rosh Hashanah, we also affirm the Kingship of God, thus the round challah also symbolizes God’s “crown.” With this in mind, there is a tradition of surrounding the challahs with a wreath of flowers. That will certainly get your guests’ attention and perhaps lead to some thought-provoking discussions.
Apples and honey are a given; the honey, of course, represents our hopes for a sweet new year. In the shtetls of Poland and Russia, Jewish women placed honey in four corners of their houses for good luck. This might be a tradition to renew, as it will certainly help us to think about a sweet new year from many points of view.
While it might seem icky to some, there is a tradition of having a fish head (attached to the rest of the fish you might be serving) on the Rosh Hashanah table. Rosh Hashanah literally means “head of the year.” Before eating the fish, a blessing is recited that is based on a verse in Deuteronomy: “And the Lord will make thee the head, and not the tail.” Some commentators say the fish head also signifies how we can dive into the new year with strength, not weakness. According to Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of “The Cookbook of the Jews of Greece,” “The fish also symbolizes the Great Leviathan on which Israel is to feast for eternity in Heaven.” A fish head on your table could perhaps lead to some interesting perspectives on the new year and some research into just what the Leviathan was. Hint: Look for commentaries on the fifth day of Creation.
Some foods are traditionally served because their Hebrew names are puns. In Hebrew, for example, the word for carrots is gezer, which sounds similar to the word for decree, gazar. The decree refers to God’s decision about what’s in store for us this year. A little intimidating perhaps for modern tastes. Rabbi Irving Greenberg has suggested serving foods inspired by your own puns in English, such as dates, with the hope that your single friends have lots of dates, or eating peaches with hopes for a “peachy” new year. Let’s see, there could be oranges, as in, “Orange you glad it’s Rosh Hashanah?” Or cherries, in hopes that life will be a bowl of. Or lemon, as in whenever life gives you one, you’ll make lemonade. Lettuce—let us begin this joyous year together. You get the idea.
Serving new fruits, ideally something your family has never eaten, evokes new beginnings. Consider scouring your local grocery stores for star fruit, lychee, longan, rambutan, aizen fruit, African cucumber or passion fruit. Some families fulfill this mitzvah by serving fruits that have newly come into season.
Pomegranates are often served on Rosh Hashanah. Tradition teaches that there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate, just as there are 613 commandments in the Torah. Also, pomegranate designs decorated the High Priest’s robes in biblical times, as well as the columns in King Solomon’s temple.
Noam Zion, director of The Shalom Hartman Institute’s Resource Center for Jewish Continuity, created a Rosh Hashanah seder, which is available online. He has many ideas on how to enliven the Rosh Hashanah meal. One suggestion is that the family make a plan as to which causes and charities they will devote time and money to this year.
Having guests participate in a discussion about how they look forward to or are anxious about the new year can provide guidance as 5778 approaches. Some questions Zion suggests: What are your hopes and fears for the new year? What might you like to see reborn in your life? Is there a mitzvah you’re proud of from the previous year? What brought you the greatest joy or sorrow last year? Is there someone who inspired you in the past year?
Other questions to stimulate conversation: For whom might you move from judgment to mercy in the spirit of the season? Keeping in mind that the blowing of the shofar is intended to wake us up, what part of your life did you wake up this year? In what part of your life would you like to be woken up for next year?
When my kids were younger our Rosh Hashanah dessert included a birthday cake. Rosh Hashanah is traditionally seen as the birthday of the world. Our inspiration was the children’s book “The World’s Birthday” by Barbara Diamond Goldin, in which a young girl tries to convince her family to buy a birthday cake for the world and to sing happy birthday. Spoiler alert: She gets her wish and the wind blows out the candles. Of course families with kids of all ages can do this.
Special readings can stir thoughts about the new year. Psalm 27 is included in daily services during the month of Elul through the end of Sukkot. The psalm encourages us to enter what is seen as a time of judgment, without fear and with trust in God. It begins, “The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?”
Dr. Zion recommends the e.e. cummings poem, which begins, “i thank You God for most this amazing day…this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth day of life and love and wings: and of the gay great happening illimitably earth….”
Marge Piercy wrote two poems to welcome the Jewish New Year: “The Head of the Year” (“Go with empty hands to those you have hurt and make amends…Now is the time to do what you know you must and have feared…”). The other is “Coming up on September” (“…I begin to reconsider my life. What is the yield of my impatience? What is the fruit of my resolve?…Now is the time to chart an aerial map of the months….”).
The sweetness of the Rosh Hashanah meal doesn’t have to end with dessert. Send your guests home with a jar of honey, some yummy Israeli candy, a honey cake.
One last suggestion for a peaceful, joyful Rosh Hashanah dinner: avoid politics.
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