Oct 042016
 

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The Jewish feast of Rosh Hashanah began at sundown on 2 October this year, and continues for 2 days. So today is the second day, which ends at sundown. It is traditionally a 2-day festival, although usually it is celebrated on one day only now, because it is pegged to the rising of the new moon and at one time 2 days were needed in case one were cloudy. The day was set locally by what could be physically observed (and still is in some sects). Nowadays, for the most part, astronomical calculations take the place of physical observation, and so can be made years in advance. Unlike the Islamic calendar, which is strictly lunar (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/islamic-new-year/ ), the Jewish calendar is luni-solar. Intercalary days are added to make sure that the lunar months, hence the High Holy Days, keep correspondence with the seasons.

Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎‎, lit.”head) of the year”) is the Jewish New Year. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה‎‎), lit.”day of shouting/blasting,” sometimes translated as the Feast of Trumpets). It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days (Hebrew: יָמִים נוֹרָאִים‎‎ Yomim Nora’im, lit. “Days of Awe”) specified by Leviticus 23:23–32, which usually occur in the early autumn of the Northern Hemisphere.

Rosh Hashanah begins on the first day of Tishrei. Tishrei is the first month of the Jewish civil year, but the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. According to classic Judaism, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the year is explained by it being the traditional anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman according to the Hebrew Bible.

Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn), as prescribed in the Torah, following the prescription of the Hebrew Bible to “raise a noise” on Yom Teruah. Among its rabbinical customs, is the eating of symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey (for a sweet year to come) to full Rosh Hashanah meals including foods with a symbolic meaning may be served, depending on local minhag (“custom”), such as the head of a fish (to symbolize the prayer “let us be the head and not the tail”).

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The Yamim Nora’im are preceded by the month of Elul, during which Jews are supposed to begin a self-examination and repentance, a process that culminates in the ten days of the Yamim Nora’im beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. The shofar is traditionally blown each morning for the entire month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the shofar is intended to awaken the listeners from their “slumbers” and alert them to the coming judgment. The shofar is not blown on Shabbat. In the period leading up to the Yamim Nora’im “days of awe”), penitential prayers, called selichot, are recited.

Rosh Hashanah is also the day of “Yom Hadin” (Judgment day). On Yom Hadin, 3 books are opened, the book of life, for the righteous among the nations, the book of death, for the most evil who receive the seal of death, and the third book for the ones living in doubts with “non-evil” sins. The final judgment is not made from Yom Hadin until the start of Yom Kippur, so it is sometimes possible to receive the seal of life by asking for forgiveness (if you are listed in the third book).

Unlike the denominations of Rabbinical Judaism, Karaite Judaism believes the Jewish New Year starts with the 1st month and celebrate this holiday only as it is mentioned in the Torah, that is, as a day of rejoicing and shouting. Additionally, Karaites believe the adoption of “Rosh Hashanah” in place of Yom Teruah is the result of pagan Babylonian influence on the Jews during the period known as the Captivity or Exile (after the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon and the deportations of Jews to Babylonia – 597 BCE for the first, with others dated at 587/586 BCE, and 582/581) . The first stage in the transformation was the adoption of the Babylonian month names. In the Torah the months are numbered as First Month, Second Month, Third Month, etc (Leviticus 23; Numbers 28). During the Exile Jews began to use Babylonian month names, a fact readily admitted in the Talmud.

Samaritans, in their strict interpretation of the Torah, preserve the biblical name of the festival celebrated on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), namely Yom Teruah, and in accordance with the Torah do not consider it to be a New Year’s day.

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Laws on the form and use of the shofar and laws related to the religious services during the festival of Rosh Hashanah are described in Rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah that formed the basis of the tractate “Rosh HaShanah” in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. This also contains the most important rules concerning the calendar year.

The shofar is blown in long, short, and staccato blasts that may follow a set sequence:

Teki’ah (long sound) Numbers 10:3;

Shevarim (3 broken sounds) Numbers 10:5;

Teru’ah (9 short sounds) Numbers 10:9;

Teki’ah Gedolah (very long sound) Exodus 19:16,19;

Shevarim Teru’ah (3 broken sounds followed by 9 short sounds).

The shofar is blown at various times during the Rosh Hashanah prayers, with the actual sounds varying considerably according to local custom.

Many communities hold a “Rosh Hashanah seder” during which blessings are recited over a variety of symbolic dishes. The blessings have the incipit “Yehi ratzon,” (“May it be Thy will”). In many cases, the name of the food in Hebrew or Aramaic represents a play on words, a very important aspect of scriptural language. The Yehi Ratzon platter may include apples (dipped in honey, baked or cooked as a compote called mansanada); dates; pomegranates; black-eyed peas; pumpkin-filled pastries (rodanchas); leek fritters (keftedes de prasa); beets; and a whole fish with the head intact. It is also common to eat stuffed vegetables (legumbres yaprakes).

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Some of the symbolic foods eaten are dates, black-eyed peas, leek, spinach and gourd, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud: “Let a man be accustomed to eat on New Year’s Day gourds (קרא), and fenugreek (רוביא), leeks (כרתי), beet [leaves] (סילקא), and dates ( תמרי).” Pomegranates are used in many traditions, to symbolize being fruitful like the pomegranate with its many seeds. The use of apples dipped in honey, symbolizing a sweet year, is a late medieval Ashkenazi addition, though it is now almost universally accepted. Typically, round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of the year. Gefilte fish and Lekach are commonly served by Ashkenazi Jews on this holiday. On the second night, new fruits are served to warrant inclusion of the shehecheyanu blessing.

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I’m really fond of leeks prepared in all kinds of ways (I always have them in my refrigerator). Here’s leek fritters. This recipe is Syrian but you can vary the spices according to taste. Aleppo pepper is a variety of Capsicum annuum used as a spice, particularly in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, also known as the Halaby pepper. It starts as pods, which ripen to a burgundy color, and then are semi-dried, de-seeded, then crushed or coarsely ground. The pepper flakes are known in Turkey as pul biber. The pepper is grown in Syria and Turkey, and can be found in some Western markets or online. You can substitute red pepper. I use butter to sauté the leeks at first because I prefer the taste, but olive oil is fine also.

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Keftedes de Prasa

Ingredients

2 tbsp butter or olive oil
2 leeks, white parts only (about 12 oz), washed and sliced thinly
salt
4 large eggs, beaten
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs
¾ tsp allspice
¾ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp Aleppo pepper
vegetable oil for shallow frying

Instructions

Heat the butter (or olive oil) in a skillet over medium heat until it is melted and sizzling but not brown. Add the leeks and salt and sauté for about 5 minutes, until softened. Do not brown. Remove the leeks and put them in a bowl. Clean out the skillet.

Combine the leeks with salt to taste, eggs, breadcrumbs and the spices. Mix thoroughly. You should have a rather wet batter but with some body. You don’t want it so stiff that you can form a ball, nor so loose that it spreads when fried. Adjust the proportions of egg and breadcrumbs as needed and test fry a small fritter to be sure. You need the fritter to cohere.

Heat vegetable oil for shallow frying in a large skillet over medium-high heat and drop the batter by the ladleful in small batches into the oil. Brown on the bottom and flip to brown on the other side. Drain on a wire rack and serve hot.

Jun 102016
 

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Tonight after sundown is the last night of counting the Omer among certain Jewish sects. Today is also the date in 1947 on which their first motor car prototype was unveiled by the Saab company, which previously had been solely an aircraft manufacturer.  In keeping with this year’s theme of moveable feasts in this blog, I’ll go with the former.

Counting of the Omer (ספירת העומר, Sefirat HaOmer, sometimes abbreviated as Sefira or the Omer) is the verbal counting of each of the forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot as commanded in the Hebrew Bible in Leviticus 23:15–16:

15 From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks.

16 Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord.

Chapter 23 in Leviticus sets out all the holidays that Jews should observe and their dating, and this particular span refers to the distance between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot (coming up). Whether an observant Jew is supposed to literally count each day out loud is a matter of dispute among rabbinic scholars. My reading of the Hebrew leads me to the conclusion that the text is simply saying “make a calculation,” and not literally calling for a daily count. But the tradition of counting day by day got established at some point and has stuck.

There is something to be said for religious periods of anticipation and preparation – firmly established in the Christian traditions of Advent and Lent (leading to Christmas and Easter respectively), and rooted in the Jewish tradition of periods of prayer and fasting before significant events. I’ve said many times, here and elsewhere, that I find big celebrations to be much more satisfying if they are approached slowly and carefully, rather than by just coming upon them with a big bang. However, times of preparation are not popular in the modern – breathlessly hurried – world, so that counting the Omer is a rare practice nowadays, confined only to the most observant of religious Jews. Observant Jews sometimes have a device or calendar as a concrete reference to what day it is within the Omer.

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As soon as it is definitely night (approximately thirty minutes after sundown), the one who is counting the Omer recites this blessing in Hebrew:

Baruch atah A-donai E-loheinu Melekh Ha-olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al S’firat Ha-omer.

(Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.)

Then he or she states the Omer-count in terms of both total days and weeks and days. For example, on the 23rd day the count would be stated thus: “Today is twenty-three days, which is three weeks and two days ‘of’ [or] ‘to’ (לעומר) [or] ‘in’ (בעומר) the Omer”. The count is usually said in Hebrew but it can be said in one’s native language.

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In Kabbalistic Judaism the period of the counting of the Omer is considered to be a time of potential for inner growth – for people to work on their good characteristics (middot) through reflection and development of one aspect each day for the 49 days of the counting. In the Kabbalah, each of the seven weeks of the Omer-counting is associated with one of the seven lower sephirot. The Hebrew names do not have an easy English translation, and they have very complex associations in the Kabbalah:

Chesed (loving-kindness)

Gevurah (strength)

Tipheret (adornment)

Netzach (endurance)

Hod (glory)

Yesod (foundation)

Malchut (sovreignty)

Each day of each week is also associated with one of these same seven sefirot, creating forty-nine permutations. The first day of the Omer, for example, is  associated with “chesed that is in chesed” (loving-kindness within loving-kindness), the second day with “gevurah that is in chesed” (strength within loving-kindness), and so on.

Symbolically, each of these 49 permutations represents an aspect of each person’s character that can be improved or further developed. If you are interested there are numerous books and websites devoted to daily interpretations and practices, such as Simon Jacobson, The Spiritual Guide to Counting the Omer, or Yaacov Haber and David Sedley, Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement through Counting the Omer, or go here http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/276672/jewish/Spiritual-Guide.htm

As it happens, the night of the final count this year is also the beginning of the Shabbat, so a special dinner is in order. In Britain and the United States, certain dishes are traditional for Shabbat dinners and are referred to as “Jewish” cuisine. As I have said before here, this is a misnomer. Many Jews in the U.S., especially the northeast, descend from Germanic or eastern European Jews, and their cooking reflects the heritage of these cultures, not something that is uniquely Jewish, although it is important to keep kosher, so that there are no dishes that use pork products, or mix meat and dairy.

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Here’s a Sephardic dish, Moroccan Lemon Chicken, that I like. Chicken, and chicken soup, are proverbially Jewish dishes in the U.S., and this is one of my favorites.

 Moroccan Lemon Chicken

Ingredients

1 chicken (4 lbs), skinned and cut in 8 pieces
½ tsp powdered saffron
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 qt chicken stock
2 lemons
fresh chopped cilantro (for garnish)
salt and pepper

Instructions

Mix the saffron powder, cumin, paprika, turmeric, ginger, cayenne pepper and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture evenly on the chicken pieces.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat in a deep skillet large enough to hold all the chicken pieces in one layer. Sauté the onions until they are softened. Add the garlic for an additional minute, and do not let it take on any color. Add the chicken pieces in a single layer.

Pour the stock over the chicken pieces so that they are barely covered. Add the juice of the lemons and the peel, thinly sliced. Bring to a very gentle simmer, cover and cook for about 60 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. Cooking time is highly variable depending on the quality of the chicken and your personal tastes. I tend to stop once the chicken is fully cooked and no more.

Remove the chicken pieces to a warm plate, and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce for about 2 minutes. You can add extra lemon juice at this point if you like. Taste first!

Place the chicken pieces over boiled basmati rice on a serving platter. Pour the reduced sauce over the chicken pieces, and garnish with cilantro.