What are Sephardic Rosh Hashana customs?

Sweet fruits like dates play a prominent symbolic role in Sephardic Rosh Hashana customs.

Sweet fruits like dates play a prominent symbolic role in Sephardic Rosh Hashana customs.

Anyada Buena, Dulse i Alegre!

The Jewish people celebrate Rosh Hashana (pronounced Rosh Ashana among Sepharadim) every year starting the evening of the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishri. The Jewish New Year is celebrated in synagogues by hearing the shofar (ram’s horn) blasts and at home with a festive meal featuring symbolic foods, like apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year.

At the beginning of the holiday dinner, Sephardic Jews from the lands of the former Ottoman Empire have a special custom called the yehi ratzones, a series of symbolic appetizers including not only apples, but also dates, leeks, spinach, squash, black-eyed peas, and cheek meat of a cow or a fish head (the foods may differ between communities and be prepared in any number of ways). The symbolic foods represent, based on word play with Aramaic or Hebrew, a hope for the coming year, yehi ratzon meaning “may it be

[God’s] will.” For instance, dates symbolize the hope for the end of enmity against the Jews, as the Aramaic word for “date” is similar to a Hebrew word for “end.” The fish head or cheek meat symbolizes our hope that we may be the head, and not the tail. (See the order of the yehi ratzones in English, Hebrew and Ladino [in Latin script] according to the Sephardic customs as practiced in Seattle in Isaac Azose’s Mahzor Tefilah Le-David Le-Rosh Ashana.)

It is not entirely clear where the custom of the yehi ratzones originates, but food symbolism dates back to Talmudic times. In addition to the yehi ratzones, instead of dipping their bread in salt as is customary throughout the year, Jews dip their bread in honey or sugar on Rosh Ashana. In Rhodes, that sugar was kept throughout the year for various folk remedies. In her memoir I Remember Rhodes, Rebecca Amato Levy relates another interesting custom followed by this community in which they avoided wearing anything new on their feet including shoes, stockings, and slippers on Rosh Ashana.

Sepharadim greet each other with the Ladino expression Anyada Buena, Dulse i Alegre (“May you have a good, sweet and happy New Year”) or a Hebrew greeting, Tizku leshanim rabot (“May you merit many years”), to which one answers, Tizkeh vetihyeh ve-ta’arich yamim (“May you merit and live and increase your days”).

As part of our Sephardic Studies Digital Library and Museum at the University of Washington, we have several sources that offer us insight into the Jewish New Year as conceptualized by Sephardic Jews in the previous century.

One of the most intriguing of these texts comes from 1923/1924 on the island of Rhodes, then part of Italy. Ya’kov Kabuli, a teacher of Hebrew at one of the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle on Rhodes, published the second edition of his Livro de Instruksion Relidjioza. As implied by the title of the booklet, “Book of Religious Instruction,” it was intended for children in the Jewish schools in the “Orient” (meaning primarily the Eastern Mediterranean). Given the geographic proximity of Rhodes to mainland Turkey, the last page of the book indicates that it was also available for sale in the port city of Izmir, home to a much larger Sephardic Jewish community also part of the “Orient.”

Livro de instruksion relidjioza traduizido i kompuesto por eskolas Judias de Oriente (Rhodes, 1923/1924)

The 56-page manual printed in Rashi script provides a basic introduction to Judaism with sections such as  La Relidjion (“religion,” p. 3), El Dio (“God,” p. 4), Los 13 Ikkarim (The 13 principles of Judaism as established by the medieval Sephardic sage, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides [in Greek] and Mūsā bin Maimūn [in Arabic], p. 5), and Nuestras doveres en jeneral sigun la biblia i el talmud (“Our general duties according to the Bible and the Talmud,” p. 48-56).

The text follows a simple style in which the author poses questions (demandas) followed by answers (repuestas), similar in form to catechisms developed to teach the basic precepts of Christianity to Christian children.

The booklet begins with the following dialogue, in which the answer is provided from the perspective of the student who would be reading the text (p. 3):

D[emanda]: Ken sos tu?

R[epuesta]: Yo so un ijo djudyo, siendo kreygo en la relidjion judia al mizmo tiempo so desendiente de nuestros patriarkas Avra’am, Yizhak i Ya’akov, ke este ultimo se yamo kon el nombre de Israel. Es esta la razon ke los judyos se yamaron Bene Israel.

Question: Who are you?

Answer: I am a Jewish child since I believe in the Jewish religion while at the same time I am a descendant of our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the last of whom was designated with the name Israel. It is for this reason that the Jews called themselves Bene Israel (“children of Israel”).

The booklet also includes a description of Rosh Ashana in a section entitled Las fiestas (“the holidays”), which offers insight into the ways in which Kabuli, the teacher in Rhodes, sought to inculcate faith and observance of traditional Judaism among Jewish youth (p. 8-9):

D[emanda]: Kuala es la primera fiesta en el anyo?

R[epuesta]: La primera fiesta en el anyo es ROSH ASHANA dos dias ke son el primero i el segundo dia del mez de tishri, esta fiesta azemos en membrasyon de presipio de anyo, es en este dia ke dio djuzga a todo el universo, fiksando a kada persona todo lo ke tiene ke pasar la anyada venidera por bien o por mal. Esta fiesta tambien se yama YOM AZIKARON dia de membrasion keryendo dezir ke dio se akodra de todos, es esta la razon ke nos rekojimos en el templo por rogar de dio de akordarmos la nueva anyada yena de buendad. Tambien tenemos un shofar en sinyal de libertad.

Question: What is the first Jewish holiday of the year?

Answer: The first holiday of the year is Rosh Hashanah, two days which are the first and second of the month of Tishri[.] [We] celebrate this holiday to commemorate the start of the year, [and] it is on this day that God judges the entire universe, determining for each person everything that will happen in the coming year either for good or for bad. This holiday is also called Yom Ha-Zikaron, day of remembrance, which means that God remembers everyone [on this day], [and] this is the reason why we gather together in the temple [synagogue] to pray to God to grant us a new year full of goodness. We also have a shofar [ram’s horn] as a sign of liberty.

Thanks to David E. Behar, our copy of Kabuli’s Livro de Instruksion was made available to us by Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, which Jews from the Island of Rhodes established in Seattle toward the beginning of the twentieth century. The full text of Kabuli’s “Livro de instruksion religioza” is now available online as part of the Sephardic Studies Digital Library and Museum at the University of Washington. Happy reading!

Wishing you Tizku leshanim rabot and anyada buena, dulse i alegre!

 

By | 2017-09-04T22:42:13+00:00 September 24th, 2014|Categories: Digital Sephardic Treasures, Sephardic Studies|Tags: , , , , |12 Comments

About the Author:

Ty Alhadeff is the Sephardic Studies Research Coordinator of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the UW. Ty is a graduate of the University of Washington and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

12 Comments

  1. Monica Orcutt 9/24/2014 at 12:26 pm - Reply

    Gracias. Anyada Buena, shana tovah…

    I appreciate such an informative article. Well done.

  2. Patricia James 9/24/2014 at 2:02 pm - Reply

    Rosh Hashana!! Gracias ,estupendo articulo de inmensa informacion y riqueza .

  3. Rachel Bortnick 9/25/2014 at 7:25 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this article. What a treasure trove you have at the Sephardic Digital Library archives at the U.W.
    Congratulations and thanks to all involved.
    Rachel

  4. Edgardo A. Dávalos 9/26/2014 at 5:06 am - Reply

    Anyada buena i dulce,
    libres de males i hazinuras,
    para 5775
    i paz kumplida,
    para muestra kerida Israel.

    Kon grande eskarinyo i rekodro
    de meldar gueztro lavoro

  5. Enrique Levy 9/27/2014 at 1:49 pm - Reply

    Para munchos anyos. Ke tengash un anyo dulce, kon paz en Israel y kon todos djuntos.
    Bravo por la labor ke estash aziendo.

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  7. Neil Sheff 10/7/2014 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    Hi Ty, nice article. I would add that growing up in LA, we called the holiday “Roshana”, all one word, and not sure if this custom extends to other communities. And for the “fish head”, I think that’s very “Seattle” of you, but here in LA and elsewhere, at least among Rodeslis, the “head” symbolic food was “meoyos” (brains) and I know it was even for my grandparents (funny story about how my grandfather once went looking for brains in S.F. where they lived nearby in Vallejo in the 20’s with the Caraco family, now of Seattle, and the butcher was sold out! Disaster!). Though it’s hard to get these days, I was happy that my butcher in LA found a small packet for me this year which my mother made and I thoroughly enjoyed (to the horror of our family and guests!). Anyada Buena!!

    • Sarina Levy Postel 9/10/2015 at 11:19 am - Reply

      Thank you Ty, for this wonderful tradition in our language that I miss so much.You quoted my Aunt Rebecca
      Levy Amato in your article.She was an encyclopedia of knowledge.
      Neil Sheff and all the family would always share this wonderful holiday.may he rest in peace my father Moshe Levy came from Rhodes. Bravo Ty, y Anyada Bueno !

  8. Rebecca braver 9/9/2015 at 4:50 pm - Reply

    how wonderful it is to see that Sephardic traditions still exist. My mother born in Rhodes and father in Egypt.. I hail from South Africa where I attended the Sephardic shul. I now live in Toronto and have not come across a Sephardi shul.

  9. Janet Thaler 9/13/2015 at 6:54 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for this treasure. It was written by my maternal grandfather. How my mother would have loved to see it.

  10. Roberta Nifoussi Friedland 9/22/2016 at 5:01 am - Reply

    I enjoyed this article and plan to offer dates and squash to my Rosh Hashana guests. I also plan to use the Ladino phrases when I visit with my 94 year old mom in New Jersey. I hope that it will bring forth some familiar memories for her from her early years in Salonica and then NY.

  11. Samuel Camhi 10/3/2016 at 1:10 am - Reply

    Gracias por conservar nuestros textos y tradiciones. Increible trabajo, felicitaciones a todo el equipo.

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