How Jews all over the world celebrate Rosh Hashanah

Sheep’s heads, fish in a bucket and a lot of sweets

It so happens that the synagogue I attend on Saturdays, although it is officially Ashkenazi, is in fact collective. As our elder tells us “even a Japanese person can come here and pray – we don’t take money for this!” He’s stretching the point with Japanese Jews, of course – there aren’t any of them among us. But we have a diverse flock – Chabad, Litvaks, “Ethiopians”, “Turks”, “Moroccans”, and from Yemen, Bukhara, Georgia… In short, it’s easier to see what community isn’t represented here than to list all the ones that are. It’s amusing during prayer to notice how the most diverse accents blend into one.

At the end of this week the elder announced that Rosh Hashanah was approaching, and that the time had come to buy places for the holidays – there weren’t many left run out. And that’s when it all started – at the third meal, which is held immediately after the Saturday mincha, the people did not so much talk about the Torah as how they celebrated the Jewish New Year in the places where either they came from, or their fathers, or their grandfathers. And I must say the conversation was an interesting one.


Bukhara of mine, Bukhara…

“On Rosh Hashanah we slaughter a sheep,” Volodya Yakubov said dreamily. “I remember that my father slaughtered a sheep before the holiday, my father did, and now my brother does in his yard in southern Tel-Aviv. There can’t be a New Year without a fresh sheep! And naturally the head is placed on the table, and people eat it, saying: “May we be in the head, and not in the tail!” It’s a very delicious holiday on the whole. Also – I haven’t seen this myself, but my grandfather told me – in Bukhara on the eve of Rosh Hashanah an enormous festive candle made of pure wax was put on “auction”. It was over two meters high, and about as thick as your wrist. The person who won the auction, and paid a considerable amount of money for this candle, later brought it to the largest synagogue in the city, and a crowd of Jews accompanied him with songs and dances. Then the candle was lit, and after this everyone went away to their synagogues for the pre-festive mincha. Our prayers for the holiday are very beautiful…

“But not more beautiful than our Ashkenazi prayers,” someone said. “Only we sing the piyut “Utana tokef”, and I don’t know anything more beautiful than that prayer.”

“You’re wrong there!” Yakubov laughed. “Although we Bukharans do in fact pray according to the Sephardic custom, we also sing “Utana tokef”. And twice – first in Hebrew, and then in Bukharan, so everyone understands the meaning. I think that’s right – a lot of people pray in Hebrew, but in fact without understanding what they are praying about!”

All is calm in Baghdad…

“It’s good that you mentioned sheep,” said Yitzhak Baranes, who emigrated from Baghdad with his parents when he was a child. “My father said that Iraqi Jews also had the custom of slaughtering a sheep before the holiday, and not just Iraqi Jews – I think it was a common custom. They usually bought a sheep from Arab neighbors (Jews mainly worked in trade, and did not keep animals) about two weeks before the holiday, and fed it with watermelons, so the meat would taste better. At the same time they agreed with the neighbor that if the meat turned out to be was non-kosher, then he would take it himself, and that for an additional payment he would provide another sheep.

Before Rosh Hashanah, the butcher barely had the time to go from house to house and slaughter the sheep. If the sheep proved to be kosher, then the festival would begin in the house right away, but if it was non-kosher, then everyone became upset. And not because they regretted the money wasted, but because this was considered to be a very bad sign – the next year would be a bad one for the family. This sheep was regarded as a “kapara” – something like a redemptive sacrifice, and its head was put on the table.

What else can I tell you? Before Rosh Hashanah all adult males usually fast, during the day they go to the cemetery, to the graves of relatives or saints, and ask for their intervention and a good year. And of course, they go to mikvah.
The order of dishes and “simanim” for us is about the same as for you Ashkenazi: we start with fruit, to bless the fruit of the tree, then eat a watermelon to bless the fruit of the earth, then dates, beans, marrows, beets, pomegranates…”


“What about apples with honey?”

“No, we don’t eat apples with honey – we dip challah in honey. Apples are usually served for desert – boiled in sugar.
“And once more we wish everyone a “good and sweet year”.

The night of fiery stoves

“If it’s customary for you to only fast for one day before Rosh Hashanah, we start the fast two days before this,” said Yaakov Koen from Tripoli. “On the night before the actual holiday, no one sleeps, not even women and children. We start to pray at night, when it’s still dark.

My father told me that during the prayer, the women lit stoves outside and baked sweet flatbread – they tasted a bit like the doughnuts that h are baked on Hanukah. So the night before the holiday was also called “lel tanurim” – “the night of stoves”.

When the men left the synagogue, they bought a pile of these flatbread, brought them home and gave them to all women and children, wishing them a “sweet year”. The salt shakers were also taken off the table, and sugar bowls were put there instead. Everything sour, salty and spicy was generally put away. Fish was not served on the holiday, as it’s prepared with pepper.

And in the morning after the prayer and the meal, everyone gathered in the synagogue again – to read the special prayers prescribed by our wise men and Cabbalists.

In hot and yellow Africa…

“To be honest, I don’t remember that we had any special dish for Rosh Hashanah,” said Rav Yosef, from Yemen, who usually read the Torah on the Saturday mincha. “But generally a lot of customs were similar..

“We also didn’t sleep before Rosh Hashanah, the whole family didn’t. At around half past two in the morning the men went to prayer, and the women and children were supposed to wait for them to come back and meet them with hot and very sweet coffee. Those who could afford to slaughtered a sheep. Only we didn’t slaughter and prepare it before the holiday, but on the holiday itself, as long as it didn’t fall on Saturday – the law does not allow it, as you know.
What’s more, we started to blow the shofar not on the morning of the first day of the holiday, but in the middle of the night, long before the morning prayer – we had to blow it exactly 30 times. This is what our wise men ordered us to do, and there is a great secret meaning in this custom. It is also customary to wish that our friends are not only written down in the “Book of Life” (as all Jews wish one another), but also in the “Book of Memory”.

In the far west

We “Moroccan” Jews also have our own special customs,” said Meir Mizrakhi, when it was his turn to speak. “For example, Ashkenazi Jews, as far as I know, like to buy new clothes for New Year and wear everything new for the holiday prayer. But we believe that you shouldn’t wear new clothes for the holiday. Why not? Because you shouldn’t show off to God and display your pride!”


On Judgment Day everyone should be as humble as possible. On that day we mainly eat the same things as all other Jews, we make the same blessings, but everyone knows that our cuisine is the most delicious, no one can cook it like our women do. Lamb is steamed on the stove or a day, so if we slaughter a sheep, we do so two days before the holiday. Besides common dishes on the table, we also have boiled lungs. In Hebrew the word lungs – “reaya”, resembles the word “riya” (vision). So we eat it, adding the following blessing: “See us in our poverty, and multiply us and send us true salvation for the sake of Your name and illuminate our eyes with the light of Your Torah.” And to make the year as sweet as can be, besides all kinds of sweets and honey, sweet couscous is also served.
Naturally, on the night of the holiday no one is supposed to sleep, everyone reads psalms at home or at the synagogue, as the Heavenly Court also presides at night. Generally, it is believed that during the two days of the holiday the whole book of psalms must be read, at least twice. And also, I think that we have a unique custom whereby the holiday prayer must be led by three hazzanim, and at a certain moment they all stand before the Ark of the Covenant.

From Teheran to Tebriz

Our “Parsi” Daniel told us about how Jews from Iran celebrate Rosh Hashanah. He spent most of the time arguing with Meir Mizrakhi about whose cuisine was more delicious – “Persian” or “Moroccan”, and so I’ll leave out this part of his description.

The main difference of the “New Year in the Persian style” from the other communities is its public nature. After the morning prayer (part of which used to be translated into Farsi especially for women), no one goes away – at the synagogue a table is laid with all kinds of sweets and fruits, a general “kiddush” is recited, and accompanied by sweets and fruits with constant wishes for a “good and sweet year”, psalms and other sacred books are read out in unison. And this continues until the mincha, after which the tashlikh begins – the ritual of purifying sins over water. Although nowadays in urban environments this is often replaced simply by a bucket of water.

On the subject of tashlikh, but not only that…

“This is what I think, my fellow Jews,” said our shamash (assistant) Khazkel, “Where are we going to get a live carp this year for the tashlikh?”

This question, I must say, was not a joke, as in many Ashkenazi communities, if they carry out tashlikh over a bucket of water, then they put a live fish into it – as the evil eye has no power over fish, as the Talmud states, and we desire for this quality to be transmitted to Jews. Last year finding a live carp in Israel was a cinch, but in 2015, the Supreme Court, as we know, ruled in favor of animal rights activists and prohibited the sale of live fish. But the problem of fish was eventually solved. In the end cheap aquarium fish were put into the bucket.


But Khazkel, the old “yeki”, i.e. an emigrant from Germany, only had to have his tongue pulled for him to start telling incredible stories. Now he suddenly remembered that on the day before Rosh Hashanah, German Jews went to the cemetery, visited the graves of their relatives, and then went around the cemetery and began generously giving out alms to the poor people sitting by the cemetery gates, most of whom were not Jewish. In Frankfurt before the blessing of the cohens, one of the most respected Levites in the community brought an enormous silver dish into the center of the synagogue and publically washed the cohens’ hands.

Incidentally, Reb Khazkel states that the Ashkenazi put on white clothing not because they consider it to be festive and the color of the holiday. On the contrary, he says, this is the color of mourning. On Rosh Hashanah, Ashkenazi Jews dress all in white, like a shroud, as if saying to the Almighty: “We know that we deserve death for our sins, but be merciful upon us!”

What unites us

And in conclusion, a few words about the customs that are common for all Jewish communities on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

• In almost all Jewish communities it is customary to have one’s hair and nails cut before Rosh Hashanah, and go to the bath house, and then to the mikvah. But try not to drink to brotherhood in the bathhouse with all the ensuing consequences.

• In all communities, Jews avoid serving anything hot, sour and spicy on the New Year table; vinegar and piquant condiments are not added to dishes, and the festive challah is not dipped in salt, but honey – so the year really is sweet. The Ashkenazi Jews on Rosh Hashanah do not eat nuts and do not add them to sweets – as the gematria of the word “egoz” (“nut”) coincides with the gematria of the word “sin”. The Jews of North Africa on Rosh Hashanah don’t drink coffee – to avoid a “black year”.

• In all communities fruit, vegetables and dishes with names that symbolize a certain wish are served on the table. There are differences in dishes exist, but on any Jewish table it is desirable that on the evening of Rosh Hashanah there are apples, dates, pomegranates, pumpkin and beetroot. The blessings that are read over them can be found in any prayer-book.

• In the vast majority of Jewish communities it is customary at the festival to eat fish, symbolizing wealth, the multiplication of the family and protection from the evil eye. The Ashkenazi Jews use fish heads instead of the head of a calf or a lamb for the blessing “May we be the head, and not the tail.”

• In all communities on the night of Rosh Hashanah it is not customary to sleep – this would be the same as a defendant falling asleep on the bench while the judges are waiting for him to say his last word.

• In all communities it is considered a bad sign if before or during the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, a quarrel has taken place between a married couple or relatives, or if someone is crying in the house. Try to make sure that the holidays are peaceful and cheerful.

Have a happy, sweet and good year!


Peter Lukimson

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