A Vegan Rosh HaShanah
by Rabbi Rick Brody
Some practical suggestions for celebrating the new year with plant-based foods and some reflections on having your dietary choices help usher in a year of goodness, health, and holiness.
Here in funky Austin there is a new little craze sweeping the Jewish community, as two health practitioners (a doctor and a weight-management coach), both members of the local Conservative synagogue, have started promoting a new diet that emphasizes plant-based foods, decreasing meat, and basically eliminating dairy. Many Jews here who are becoming increasingly concerned about their health and weight have jumped onto the bandwagon, which is great news for vegans as well as the animals that tend to suffer miserable lives and deaths, even if compassion towards other creatures isn’t the primary motivation behind this effort. They have a Facebook page that you’re welcome to check out.
One of my congregants, who has jumped on this bandwagon, just asked me about recommendations for what to cook for the holidays. The first thing that came to mind was the series of foods that have word-play blessings associated with them. I found (and slightly modified) the below list after a very quick search and discovery of these pages, including a couple that have full-fledged recipes. I invite you to check the links in the previous sentence for more detail, including specific culinary suggestions.
Some brief comments:
1) In general, the wonderful idea here is that through the food that we eat — and certain intentions associated with those foods — we renew our year and recommit ourselves to our quest for wholeness and holiness in our lives. This outlook is precisely what motivates vegans and I would say especially Torah-oriented vegans who see their veganism as an expression of kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws.
With a couple of exceptions, these traditional foods are all vegan. Eating them can connect us with the richness of the natural world and the foods it provides for us without our causing harm to sentient beings. Furthermore, eating them can challenge us to make the connection between the foods we eat and the ethical choices we make — those directly related to our eating as well as those that enable us to extend our compassion to all other aspects of our lives.
2) I say yes, eat nuts – and that would be like consuming our sins! If the Israelites were forced to drink the powdered remains of the Golden Calf, why shouldn’t we ingest a food that symbolizes transgression? Perhaps the only way to fully confront our shortcomings is to devour them. Plus, nuts are nutrient-rich and delicious!
3) It is interesting that there’s a tradition to use sugar instead of honey on the challah.
4) Obviously, vegans prefer our fish swimming in their native waters rather than dead on our tables. And no comment on the ram’s head, except to ask what might be a suitable substitute? A head of lettuce? Something else from the plant world that can symbolize a “head”? And how about a symbolic “tail” while we’re at it?
I wish everyone a cruelty-free new year filled with good health for all!
Say Nuts to Nuts
Some Jews avoid eating nuts on Rosh Hashanah because the Hebrew word for nut is “eh-goze” which has the same numerical values as “chet,” meaning sin. On the Day of Judgment, the thinking goes, its worthwhile to avoid all shades of sin even numerical ones.
Egyptian Jews and others eat black-eyed peas because they are called Rubya, related to the Hebrew word rov meaning a lot, many. Black-eyed pea dishes, such as Hoppin’ Jack, are traditional New Year’s eats in the American Southeast. One wonders if the slave trade had something to do the migration this dish.
Couscous with Seven Vegetables
The many tiny couscous grains represent a wish for a year with blessings aplenty. Tossing seven different vegetables plays on the number seven, which represents goodness in the natural order. Seven earns this distinction because God created the world in seven days.
Sugar or Salt on the Challah
Some Sephardic Jews deliberately avoid honey because it was a fouling agent if added to the Temple incense. Challah is dipped into sugar instead. Jews who observe this sugar custom might dip their bread three times in sugar and three times in salt. Throughout the year, challah is dipped into salt in remembrance of the sacrifices that had salt sprinkled on them.
To Fish or Not to Fish
Fish multiply in great number. They never sleep. They swim in water. Believe it or not these are reasons why they are eaten by some Jews on Rosh Hashanah. We hope the year will be one of plenty, just as fish are extremely fruitful. Just as fish never sleep, we hope to maintain a constant awareness of our mission in life and to remain cognizant of God’s expectations at all times. Since fish are underwater the evil eye cannot penetrate the depths, and we wish to be free of any negative wishes.
Yet there are some Jews, among them certain Sephardim, who will not eat fish on Rosh Hashanah. In Hebrew fish is “dag” and that sounds too close to “da’ahgah,” worry, for comfort.
When Jews were closer to agriculture and to the ways of the marketplace butcher, the following custom probably didn’t sound as nauseating. With the prayer “May it be God’s will that we will be the head and not the tail,” Jews kept a sheep, rooster, or a fish head on the Rosh Hashanah table.
Rabbi Abaye mentioned gourd eating in his list of New Year’s symbolic foods because of two puns that may be made on the gourd’s Hebrew name “k’rah.” The word means “read out, proclaim” as in “May our merits be proclaimed before God.” K’rah also means “rip up” as in “May harsh decrees be torn.”
The two meanings are combined in the following short prayer:
May it be your will Eternal God that our harsh decrees are torn up and our merits are proclaimed before You.
Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu she’yee-korah g’zar dee’nay-nu v’yee-kar-oo l’fah-necha zechu-yo-tay-nu.
Fenugreek is known as “rubia,” increase, and is eaten with the short prayer:
Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu sheh’yirbu ze’chu-yo-taynu.
May it be your will Eternal God that our merits increase.”
Leeks or Cabbage
These vegetables are known as karsi, related to the word karet, to cut off or destroy.
Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu sheh’yee-kar-tu soh-nay-nu.
May it be your will Eternal God that our enemies will be cut off.
Beets are known as “silka,” related to the word “siluk,” meaning removal. The adversaries referred to in the prayer before eating the beet are the spiritual roadblocks created by the past year’s missteps that must be removed before a sweet New Year is granted.
Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu sheh-ye’stal-ku oy-vay-nu.
May it be your will Eternal God that our adversaries will be removed.
Dates are known as “tamri” is related to the word “tamri,” meaning consume or finish. This food is similar to the beets and leeks in that it is eaten with the intent that all enemies will end their detrimental wrath.
Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai Eloheinu sheh-yee-tahm’u oy-vay-nu.
May it be your will Eternal God that our enemies will be finished.
Yehi Ratzon Mil’fa’necha, Adonai Eloheinu She nirbeh zechuyot ke rimon.
May it be Your will, Lord our God and the God of our fathers, that we be filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate [is filled with seeds].