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Former Winnipegger Reesa Cohen Stone: High Holidays in the Holyland

by Reesa Cohen Stone, Sept 11,2023

Back in the Old Country, as I remember, one of the first indications that the High Holidays were around the corner was that the temperatures dropped from their summer highs and the air, especially in the mornings, became a bit nippy.

Nippiness doesn’t set in until November or so here in the HolyLand, so a change in weather is not an harbinger of the Holidays.

Flies are.

For some reason, the number of swarming flies grows from the end of August through the Holidays. As I swat away at any food item left on its own (inside or out), I realize that Rosh Hashana is mere days away.

While many aspects of the High Holidays are universal, there are some differences. For example, the air in Beer Sheva is not nippy until at least November, and September is the height of fly season.

The High Holidays, aka the Chagim, are intense, demanding, joyful, and exhausting.

It is the best time to be in Israel; the weather is perfect (despite flies and non-nippy air), the supermarkets are full of traditional foods, and there are so many customs pertaining to the Chagim that can only be experienced in Israel.

The first custom, which must be acknowledged, is that, for a month, the country, essentially, shuts down. Acharei haChagim (after the holidays) was one of the first phrases I ever learned in colloquial Hebrew. While schools officially begin on September 1, nobody expects the kids to actually learn anything until Acharei haChagim. Any home improvements, such as painting or pruning, is held up until Acharei haChagim. Work projects, trips abroad, diets, are all put off until Acharei haChagim. Not only does one get used to the idea that the country is at a standstill for a month, one quickly learns to actively participate in standing still. That deadline I need to meet? The fridge that needs cleaning? That new exercise regime I mean to start? It can all wait until Acharei haChagim.

Another custom peculiar only to Israel is the custom of people – mostly kids – riding their bikes on empty roads on the day of Yom Kippur. Nobody drives on that holy day; even the most secular of Jews do not drive in Israel on Yom Kippur. Bike riders take advantage of the empty roads and streets and highways to soar across towns and villages, because they can. (There is a bit of a ghostly vibe about it all.)

Another great custom is hanging tinsel and colored (sometimes flashing) lights in one’s Sukkah. It’s fabulous.

I think the custom that I throw myself into whole-heartedly, and one I only learned about after several years living here, is the Rosh HaShana Seder.

Everyone is familiar with the Passover Seder, but not everyone, certainly not when I was younger in the Old Country, is aware of the shorter, and a lot more fun, custom that takes place on one or both nights of Rosh HaShana, depending on how much you enjoy yourself.

The Rosh HaShana seder consists of eating certain symbolic fruits and vegetables each with its own blessing and prayer. Most of those prayers are plays on Hebrew words and each begins with the words ‘May it be Your will’. These foods are known as ‘simanim’ or symbols and there are many sites available to learn more (for those interested). Here, I am only going to describe a bit about the foods themselves.

We start with fresh dates. Dates ripen exactly now, in the autumn. Not far from my house are public date trees where the dates are MUCH too high up to pick (like 10 meters) and for six weeks, as one walks along the path, one steps into piles of fallen semi-rotten dates. Fortunately, fresh non-trodden-on dates are easily available in most supermarkets. Unfortunately, fresh dates are actually inedible because they are quite quite hard. The trick, which I learned from a book, is to take the dates (fresh from the supermarket and not the road) and freeze them. When defrosted, they soften completely, and can be eaten. I don’t actually like dates that much, buy hey.  

Next up is pomegranates, which, unlike dates, I quite enjoy. Pomegranates are one of the few fruits that what is eaten are the seeds. One cuts out apple seeds, spitting orange seeds is a contest (at least in my house), apricot seeds are played with like marbles, but pomegranate seeds are eaten. Indeed, the legend is that each pomegranate contains 613 seeds corresponding to the 613 mitzvot in our Torah. Rich and red, pomegranates are considered the king of fruits, hence its crown.

After the fruit, we begin with vegetables – none of which I would actually choose to eat on a normal night. Black-eyed peas, leeks, beets, gourds, and carrots – each were chosen because, with a stretch of the imagination, the Hebrew word for the vegetable can have a double meaning. For example, the Hebrew word for beet is selek, while l’salek means to get rid of. Therefore, we eat a piece of beet and ask God ‘l’salek et oyvenu’ – to get rid of our enemies.

We then eat fish and/or fish heads to symbolize abundance and leadership. Unfortunately, I can’t stomach fish, so in my household, we suffice with fish in gummy form. One memorable year, I found (parve) chocolate fish. We still talk about it.

We end the seder with the more known apple and honey – symbolizing our wish to have a sweet year.

In addition to all these foods, many people add other foods to symbolize other wishes and prayers:

One family I know eats banana slices ‘she yibane beit hamikdash b’mheirah (that our Holy Temple will be rebuilt speedily).

Or peas as a symbol for peace.

Or olives while wishing your friends and family olive your love.

There is the infamous custom of inserting a raisin in a slice of celery and wrapping them in lettuce leaf and saying Lettuce have a raisin celery before consuming.

There are many versions of the Rosh HaShana Seder, depending on one’s cultural heritage (their Old Country of origin) and personal tastes.

The word Seder means order, and the ceremony is so called because the foods are eaten in a particular order (the reasons are beyond the scope of this article). L’histader – coming from the same root as Seder – means to get along.

Maybe that is the purpose of the entire ceremony.

May it be Your will that, in this coming new year, we all learn to get along with one another, and to love each other because, despite our differences and the distances between us, we all share one history and one destiny. 

Wishing all of Am Yisrael a good and sweet New Year.

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