A Family Ritual for Blessing the New Year

September 9, 2015

A Sephardic Rosh Hashanah ceremony combines elements of Tashlich and a healing ritual.

With joy we share our family tradition of “Lavar la Cara” (washing our faces in the ocean). It seems that this tradition combines many elements of two ceremonies. The first is “Tashlich” from the Hebrew “to cast off,” referring to the custom of tossing bits of bread in the water to symbolize the casting off of our sins. The second is a healing ritual of the Rhodeslis — those who trace roots to the island of Rhodes, tossing ailments into the ocean and receiving renewed health from the ocean, HaShem and the incantations and blessings of our elders.

Over the generations, our family tradition had been to go to the beach on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Now that we live in disparate parts of Los Angeles, have differing synagogue schedules and levels of observance, our extended families (about 40 of us) come from throughout the greater Los Angeles area and meet at Venice Beach on the Sunday morning between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, bringing our beach chairs and something to share at our informal brunch that follows.

Once set up, we go down to the water, usually in smaller family groups. A family matriarch, one by one, blesses us and washes our faces. Bending down to capture a handful of water from a new wave, she washes the face of each of us, saying in Ladino, “todo mal ki se vaiga” (“everything bad should go”). She elaborates: “Everything that is bothering you, worrying you, anything that is harming you, any sickness, illness, any fright or discomfort, all this, should be swept away to the very depths of the ocean.” She then bends down to scoop a fresh handful of water from a new wave. Washing our face and the back of our neck again, this time saying “todo bien ki se venga” (“everything good should come”). Again, she elaborates, “Everything now will be good, your pain will go away, any illness will leave your body, healing will come to you. Every worry is now gone. New ideas and good thoughts will fill your mind. Your heart will be content.”

To each, now, she gives a specialized blessings for the New Year. To children she might offer that they will do well in school, be happy, enjoy their friends, make their parents proud or have a good year in sports, theater, Hebrew school; whatever is appropriate to that child. To the young adults, she might offer that they will do well in school, find jobs or the right person to share their lives with. Newlyweds are blessed to find happiness together, build a home and life together, have children. After the individual blessings, the matriarch gives each of us a finger full of sugar, which she puts in our mouths for a “sweet” year. This is no regular sugar; the sugar is from the Rosh Hashanah table. After we use sugar for our Hamotzi prayer on this holiday, the remaining sugar goes into a baggie and comes with us to the beach.

There are variations. Sometimes we invoke the names of the Patriarchs, “Con el hombre del Dio di Avram, Izhak, Yaacov, Rey David i Shelomo,” as well as the Matriarchs, “Rivka, Sarah, Rachel, i Leah.”

On occasion we add a new tradition, like dancing along the shore. New traditions are always welcome!

Blessings complete, we return to our beach chairs, sit for a nice ‘vijita’ (visit) and enjoy coffee, juice, bagels, borekas (Sephardic cheese and rice or potato pastries), biscochos (tea cookies), spinach quashado (soufflé), assorted cheeses with olive oil (usually feta and ricotta), homemade breads (rosca), fruits and dessert pastries. We stay and visit, feeling renewed, and certainly feeling a great deal of love from and for our family. It’s a New Year. The Day of Atonement is coming soon. We are ready to face it with a humble heart, renewed spirit and a refreshed outlook.

A Rosh Hashana Seder

The holidays are almost here and the cooking has begun! Time for family, reflection and looking towards the year ahead.

One of the rich and unique traditions of our Sephardic families is a Rosh Hashanah Seder. It is a short service we conduct around our tables with the Rosh Hashanah evening meal, with some families doing it on both nights. Including the traditional blessings done at the holiday meal table (Kiddush, Washing of the Hands, HaMotzi), blessings are also said over symbolic foods, expressing our hopes and wishes for the year ahead. Most of the foods used are those whose names in Hebrew sound similar to one of the wishes expressed, so there is some fun associated with this!

Although primarily a Sephardic tradition, many others have begun adding the Seder to their Rosh Hashanah celebrations. My father remembers the “ratzones” from his childhood in Seattle…we began sharing the tradition with our children and friends within the past decade. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg suggests that each family add some blessings of our own, adding to our family traditions, adding puns we create around foods we include, which we have done from time to time. One of our Rebbetzins, Penina Schochet, suggested that we select a new fruit each year, having our young children be part of the process, and say a “shehecheyanu” over the addition of the new fruit, as a way to further grace our Rosh Hashanah table and include our children in selecting and trying something new.

Some families refer to this “service” as the “Yehi Ratzones”, referring to the words used “May it be Your will …” as referencing the symbolism that is to be recited. Often one hears the words “simanim”, referring to the ‘symbolic’ foods used. I will note some of the foods we eat and the translation of the blessings we say, primarily based on the materials prepared and provided by Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel (STTI) in Westwood, California, as well as materials prepared by the Maimon Family in Seattle, Washington.

Finally, my good friend, Linda Sendowski (The Boreka Diary) has some wonderful recipes for Rosh Hashana foods, specifically these symbolic foods, on her blog, which I share with you.

Check it out…and consider including some of these ideas and blessings at your Rosh Hashanah table this year.

For our Seder, we prepare a plate on the table that holds some of each symbolic food, and a prepared page for all our guests, including the blessings we will recite for the evening so all can participate. We include the Hebrew and English, and some years, the Ladino. Adapt as is comfortable for your household. We start with the Kiddush, the Shehecheyanu, Birkat Yeladim (Blessing of the Children), Washing the Hands, and the Hamotzi.

Following that, we recite a few blessings with intended good for the New Year, over some symbolic foods. The foods we use are usually plentiful during this season. Their Hebrew names, shades or colors remind us of our hopes and dreams for the year ahead. It is noted that “foods provide us an occasion to wish away our fears and verbalize our deepest hopes, as well as a chance to pun on their names in a number of local tongues”. (Source: Noam Zion in his paper Seder Rosh Hashanah).

1. Apples dipped in sugar or honey; apple cooked in sugar or honey; or candied apples:

Yehi Ratzon May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, to renew upon us a good and sweet year, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.

Baruch Ata Adonai Elohenu Melech Haolam Bore Peri Haetz.

2. Leeks (karti):

Yehi Ratzon May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, that our enemies be cut off, as well as those who desire to do us harm.

(this is based on the wordplay between the Hebrew word for leek, “karti”, which is similar to the word “korat”, meaning “to cut off”)

3. Beets or Spinach (“silka” is usually identified as beets; Keter Shem Tov says it refers to spinach):

Yehi Ratzon May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, that our enemies disappear, as well as those who desire to do us harm.

4. Dates:

Yehi Ratzon May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, that our enemies be consumed as well as those who desire to harm us.

(this is based on the wordplay between the Hebrew for dates, “tamar”, which is similar to a word meaning to “end” or “consume”)

5. Pumpkin or gourd (zucchini or squash; “kalavasa” is often used):

Yehi Ratzon May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, that you should tear up any evil decrees against us and let our merits be read before you.

(this is based in the wordplay between the Aramaic word for pumpkin or gourd, “kara”, and the Hebrew word meaning to “tear”)

6. Fish (pishkado):

Yehi Ratzon May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, that our merits may multiply as the fish in the sea. Others have commented that as fish is a symbol of abundance and fertility, we ask God to Bless us with both.

7. “Ruviah”, often identified as Fenugreek, although sometimes referred to as black eyed peas or string beans. It is told that in Bagdad, it was referred to as “luviah”. Since it was similar to the Hebrew word “lev”, meaning heart, the word “ut-labevenu” (meaning “and purify us”) was added. (Linda Sendowski has a great recipe for Black Eyed Peas!)

Yehi Ratzon May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, that our merits increase and that you purify us.

8. Pomegranates ( Used the seeds in your cooking, in a salad, or see Debby Segura’s recipe for making a Granita)

Yehi Ratzon May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, that our merits increase as the seeds of the pomegranate.

9. Head of Fish (something from the head….in our family, my Aunt Belina Hasson used to make tongue (I cannot get myself to even buy a tongue, let alone figure out how to cook it….so, since this is based on puns, we use a “head” of lettuce):

Yehi Ratzon May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our Fathers, that we may be in the forefront as the head, and not the background, as the tail.

The festival meal then follows.

In keeping with Yitz Greenberg’s suggestions, one could add:
Peaches: May it be a “peachy” year
Dates: May our single friends have many “dates” this year
Mushrooms: May our abundance “mushroom” in the years ahead….

Have fun with this and make it meaningful to your family!

My friend, Debby Segura, combines all the symbolic foods into a beautiful and tenderly delicious salad which she serves as an early course. Her recipe for a “New Year Simanim Salad” is posted here. I have served it many times….it is enjoyed by all, and the symbolism makes it ever more special! ( Debby Segura)

Finally, I am attaching a link to a YouTube series of “The Selichot of Ezra Bessaroth”, in Seattle, Washington. It is a ten-part series of the Selichot service in the tradition of the Jews of Rhodes, led by Hazzan Isaac Azose, with many in the Congregation participating. The melodies are familiar to those of us who grew up in Rhodesli Sephardic Synagogues. There is something comforting and reaffirming in melodies, memories and flavors of our youth. I hope you will take a few minutes to listen and enjoy.

(Selichot in the tradition of the Jews of Rhodes)

Please share with us any of your own family traditions….we would love to post them. Sharing keeps traditions alive and evolving for each new generation!

From my parents, Jack and Kaye Israel, my husband Robert, and our sons, Jason and David….Tizku Leshanim Rabot…May we all merit many years; Anyada Buena….a good, and meaningful New Year to you all!

~Marcia Israel Weingarten
Bendichas Manos