The First of Nisan, the Forgotten Jewish New Year

By Joel S. Davidi Weisberger

The Alexandrian pamphlet describing the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy.

It is late March and the weather is still cold. The sounds of Arabic music and exuberant conversation emanate from an elegant ballroom in Brooklyn, New York. No, it’s not a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah. A Torah Scroll is unfurled and the cantor begins to read from Exodus 12:1, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.’” The reading is followed by the chanting of liturgical poetry based on this Torah portion, “Rishon Hu Lakhem L’khodshei Hashanah”… Yom Nisan Mevorakh….” “The first month shall it be for you for the months of the year… the month of Nisan is blessed.” As they leave the event, men and women wish each other “Shana tova,” happy new year.

Something seems off. It is a Monday night and Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish new year, is still six months away. Why the celebration and talk of a new year? This ritual is very familiar, however, to the members of Congregation Ahaba Veahva, a Synagogue that follows the Egyptian-Jewish rite. It is a vestige of a very ancient, almost extinct Jewish custom called Seder Al-Tawhid (Arabic, Seder Ha-Yikhud in Hebrew, the ritual of the unity). [Read more…]

Savory Treats in the Samaritan Sukkah


A Samaritan sukkah. Photo: Ben Sedaka

— by Ronit Treatman

In Exodus (23:16), we are commanded to keep the harvest festival.  The harvest festival referred to is sukkot.  To this day, many of us build temporary booths outside, decorate them, and eat or even sleep in them. There also exists an ancient Samaritan tradition of building indoor sukkot. The Samaritans serve their guests unique treats, that hearken back to ancient Israel, during the time before the Babylonian captivity.

Samaritans believe that they are the descendants of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.  They believe that are the offspring of the Jews who remained in Israel during the Babylonian Exile (597 BCE).  When the Judean exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia (538 BCE), they rejected the Samaritans, out of concern that their practices and beliefs had diverged during the decades of separation.  The Samaritans built their temple on Mount Gerizim.  They have a Samaritan Torah, and do not accept the Talmud, Mishnah, and Gemara.  The Samaritans call themselves “Bnei Israel,” “the children of Israel.” According to the Talmud (tractate Kutim) Samaritans are to be treated as Jews when they practice the same customs as Jews, and as non-Jews when their practice differs.  Since the 19th century, the Samaritans have been considered a Jewish sect, and referred to as Samaritan Jews.   Today there remain two small communities of Samaritans, one in Holon and one on Mount Gerizim near Nablus.

Sesame Cookies recipe after the jump.
The custom of building sukkot indoors is a vestige of the persecution that the Samaritans endured under the Byzantines. In order to be able to preserve their traditions, they moved their sukkot indoors. They decorate their sukkot in a very exquisite way, with a ceiling that is a mosaic of fresh fruit. Guests who are lucky enough to experience this beauty are also treated to Samaritan hospitality: The Samaritans serve fragrant, savory cookies called Mekamar. They are a wonderful treat with hot mint tea.

Mekamar: Savory Sesame Cookies (Adapted from “The Wonders of the Israelite Samaritan Kitchen” by Benjamin Sedaka)

  • 7 cups of unbleached flour
  • 3 1/2 cups of semolina flour
  • 6 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3 1/4 cups vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 cups toasted sesame seeds
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt
  • 3 tablespoons ground fennel
  • 2 tablespoons ground turmeric
  • 1 3/4 cups water
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Knead all the ingredients together in a bowl.  
  3. Pinch off walnut size pieces of dough.
  4. Roll each piece of dough into a ball, and then flatten onto a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.
  5. Bake for approximately 20 minutes. Then, check to see if they are baked through, and bake for a few more minutes if necessary.