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~Bella Chagall, "Burning Lights"
Rosh Hashanah, which, in 2014, begins Wednesday evening, September 24th, celebrates both the New Year and a birthday--humankind’s. But in place of revelry, there is reflection; instead of joyful music, the shrill wail of the shofar summons us to cleanse our souls and our hearts.
For Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, when God inscribes our fate for the coming year in the Book of Life. The decree, however, is not final: the book is shut, the judgment sealed on Yom Kippur. So we can change our destiny during the next ten days, the Days of Awe, with prayer, charity, and reparation of the wrongdoings we have committed against others.
Judaism teaches that God created the world, but left it not quite finished, so that we could become the Maker’s partners in the creative process by completing the work. This process is called tikkun olam (literally, the repair of the world), and it is by bettering ourselves and restoring what is damaged and imperfect in life that we honor and celebrate the birth of Creation.
The holiday is at once solemn and festive: joy comes not only from trust in God’s compassion, but also the anticipation of renewal and fresh starts. Nearly 2,500 years ago, the prophet Nehemiah proclaimed, “Eat the rich and drink the sweet.”
That sweet, rich Rosh Hashanah meal becomes more than mere rejoicing--it too is a form of prayer. The table is transformed into an altar to supplicate God, as we partake of symbolic foods embodying our wishes: honeyed and sugared treats for a sweet year, round foods for a fulfilled year, unbroken by tragedy, foods that grow in profusion at this season and those eaten in abundance, like rice, signifying hopes for fecundity, prosperity, and a wealth of merits.
Rosh Hashanah is also known as the Day of Remembrance, and eating these special dishes reminds us how we must behave. Whole or part of an animal’s head (sweetbreads, tongue, etc.); an entire fish, including the head; or even a head of roasted garlic might be served, urging us to be a model of righteousness, at the head of our peers. Sweets, like challah stuffed with raisins, tell us to act in a way that would cause no sadness.
We begin dinner with a prayer for a sweet year, dipping challah (or other sweet bread) and apples into fragrant honey. Other families start with sugared pomegranates, dates, figs, or quince in rose petal syrup--or even, as at least one family with young children does, with challah and apples in chocolate sauce! Cochini Jews may have twenty fruits on the table and dip each one.
Fish, symbolizing fertility and God’s blessings, is the customary first course on most menus. Rapid-growing seasonal vegetables like leeks, Swiss chard, black-eyed peas, and pumpkins, to name just a few, appear throughout the meal in major roles and supporting parts. Sumptuous main dishes follow, and usually, two (or more) sweet desserts, like a simple, fresh plum tart , a honey cake, or a noodle kugel--lush with coconut milk and caramelized pineapple--conclude the meal.
For me, no Rosh Hashanah custom captures the joy of creation, of life, like the “new fruit” ritual, when a fruit is tasted for the first time since it was last in season. We decide on a special fruit, but refrain from eating it when it arrives at our local markets in late summer or early autumn. Then, when Rosh Hashanah comes, it is as if we are tasting the fruit for the first time. Usually we cut open a pomegranate or two and spoon the seeds into little crystal bowls. Often I have not eaten this favorite fruit since last January; tasting it on Rosh Hashanah is like discovering it, participating in the brand-newness of Creation. This is the thrill expressed in the Sheheheyonu prayer, traditionally recited on Rosh Hashanah and other occasions when one experiences the pleasure of life's extraordinary moments, what Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent, calls the "wow prayer."
One year, as we all held hands and recited the prayer, a tear rolled down a guest’s cheek. The Sheheheyonu, he remembered, had been his late father's favorite blessing, and he had never understood why. Now, hearing it chanted again for the first time in twenty-five years, he finally understood.
***Dinners on the first and second nights of the holiday (Reform Jews celebrate the first night only) are not the only times we enjoy the festive foods. Many families host special lunches after synagogue services on the first and second days. At my late mother-in-law’s annual Rosh Hashanah open house, an extended bar and several buffet areas were set up throughout her sprawling Brooklyn apartment to accommodate all the family and friends who would show up at different times from various synagogues. For us, those luncheons signaled the end of the long summer, a day to reconnect, note the changes that had taken place in the past year, and make plans together for the year to come.
When I was growing up, late in the day, my family would visit relatives and close friends or entertain them in our home. This was the time to bring out sweet teatime treats like Peach Buttermilk Kugel or a mouthwatering challah bread pudding.
Sweetness and abundance are not confined to foods. Conversation is joyous--it is, in fact, forbidden to display anger. Many families develop a menu rife with food puns in the Rosh Hashanah spirit, then make a game of decoding the symbolism of the holiday dishes. And it is a mitzvah, a good deed, to invite guests, especially strangers and poor people, those, as Nehemiah said, “for whom nothing is prepared” to share the meal.
A few foods, however, are unwelcome at the Rosh Hashanah table. Nuts are not eaten by some Ashkenazi Jews because the numerical value of the Hebrew word for nuts is equal to the value of the word for sin. And nuts can cause an excess of saliva, impairing one’s ability to recite prayers. Others do not eat pickles, horseradish, or other sour foods, while Moroccans avoid foods that are black, like olives and grapes--all are considered bad omens.
***“Some of the townspeople stood on the wooden bridge reciting the 'tashlikh'; others lined the river banks. Young women took out their handkerchiefs and shook out their sins. Boys playfully emptied their pockets to be sure no transgressions remained.” ~Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Tashlikh”
During the afternoon it is traditional to go to the nearest body of free-flowing water--ocean, lake, river, or in arid areas, like Israel, a well--to cast away sins, a cathartic ceremony known as tashlikh. Penitents, as in I. B. Singer’s story above, watch their sins of the past year float away into the water, tangibly expressed as the lint and crumbs shaken from pockets and handkerchiefs.
As children, we wanted to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and our iniquities. The little beach town we grew up in was an island, with both ocean and bay. For my sister and me, though, there was really no choice about where to take our transgressions. We had seen bottles, shreds of clothes, and dead horseshoe crabs tossed up by the ocean and left like offerings on the beach. We did not want our sins riding in on the waves, returned to us--or to anybody else, for that matter. In the warm slant of the Indian summer sun, we stood above the cool waters of Reynolds Channel. Our black velvet dresses had no pockets and we never carried handkerchiefs, so we peeled off our little white kid gloves, shaking out the fingers into the currents below.
Once, one of us dropped a glove. And from the dock, we watched it swim away in the roiling black waters--our accidental scapegoat, like our sins, never to return.
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