How to Host a Beautiful Rosh Hashanah Dinner
The full Rosh Hashanah tablescape reveal and hosting guide, that is.
I hope you’ll pardon the ~83-year delay in actually posting this, but as you may RECALL, this whole running-a-blog thing is not actually my real job, and also sometimes real life just takes precedence, and also sometimes you get tickets to see Waitress and then you’ve gotta listen to TSwift’s new album and then you have a few errands to run and, well, you get it.
Anyway, at long last, it’s HERE!
But first, a note on brevity.
I’m just gonna tell you up front that this here is a long blog post. Really, terrifically long. I only wrote half of it before scurrying back up here to tell you that. Like, it’s shaping up to be a three-parter and I haven’t even finished the first paragraph. Could be a seven-parter. ONLY TIME WILL TELL. You ever try to keep something really short and to-the-point and all that, and instead end up babbling on for thirteen paragraphs and suddenly your whole life story’s out there for the world to see and all hope is LOST? Yes. That’s sort of how this post went for me.
And I just wanted to get that off my chest so that you don’t yell at me later.
I do think there’s a lot of good information here. I split up the post into sections (see below) that should make it easier to understand. You could totally just skim through quickly, take in the pretty photos, and skedaddle, but I wanted to make sure there’s a ton of information included just in case you’re doing some deeper digging into what it means to host this holiday
I think that’s all.
Prep & Plan
A quick rundown of what to do when.
1 Month Before
Set a budget! Categories might include “food,” “wine,” “flowers,” and “extras” (“rentals” is important to add here too if you need extra chairs or tables).
Think about the space in which you’ll be hosting your dinner. Are there any restrictions or constraints? Do you have to rent anything (extra tables, extra chairs) to make it work? If people will be driving to your event, how many cars can you fit in the driveway? And so on, and so forth.
Using that knowledge, finalize your guest list and send out your invites!
3 Weeks Before
Plan your menu (find some helpful options here!) or opt for a potluck dinner, if that feels more up your alley. Make sure to check with your guests to see if they’ve got any allergies or dietary restrictions that you’ll need to take into account.
Study up on your knowledge of the holiday, and generally brief yourself on the meaning behind this pretty and delicious journey on which you’re about to embark. Why are you planning this whole shebang? What does it mean to you? (Find a few possible answers below in the Cheat Sheet section!) This is also a good time to ask around for any formalized versions of family recipes you’d like to make.
If you need rentals, take care of those now. Tables, chairs, etc.
Place any orders for extra decorative elements—place cards, table runners, plastic silverware, and the like. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did this early. There’s always some unexpected wait time for this or that item.
2 Weeks Before
Now’s a good time to get your Rosh Hashanah-specific Judaica in order! Do you own a challah cover? How about a shofar? Borrow these items from friends and family now, before they’re all feeling just as hectic and hurried as you are closer to the holiday—or use the occasion as a fun excuse to splurge on some gorgeous new items for your own home.
Focus again on the spiritual elements of the holiday. Traditionally, the month before Rosh Hashanah (called Elul!) is regarded as a “month of reflection.” Prepare / plan / forgive / seek forgiveness / mend / resolve in little ways so that when you do finally arrive at Rosh Hashanah, you feel ready and rested. This can be as small as tidying up your house, or as big as forgiving an old friend with a handwritten letter.
One Week Before
Go shopping! Pick up any non-perishable items so that you don’t have to clutter up the few days before the holiday with too much running around. Wine, anything you can freeze, baking ingredients…things like that.
Make a playlist. Always a good idea.
Make a schedule for the day before and day of the holiday. Isn’t this a schedule, you ask? Yes. It’s a general guide, at least. But you’ll need another, more in-depth schedule that’s catered to your particular menu and people and vibe. An hour-by-hour day-of schedule is an excellent idea. Remember: Prepping way in advance might seem like an added stress, but the whole point of prep is to make life easier and less stressful.
2-3 Days Before
Shopping, part 2! Pick up whatever food items and ingredients and this-and-thats you’ll need to bring the dinner of your dreams to life.
Make whatever you can make ahead of time. Ah, make-ahead recipes. Thank goodness for them.
Make your seating arrangements (this part’s fun) and place cards. Isn’t it a little early for that, you ask? No! Prepping way in advance makes life easier and less stressful, not harder and more stressful.
1 Day Before
Shopping, part 3! Fresh flowers (don’t forget them!), herbs, and anything else that needs to be purchased close to the time of your actual dinner. Go get ‘em.
Set the table. Two words, friends: Murphy’s. Law. Set the table before the day of the party so that you’re forced to realize that your dog ate your napkins / you have no idea where your tablecloth is / you don’t actually own FORKS. Have I mentioned Murphy’s Law?
Is there anything else you can bake / cook / prep ahead of time? Maybe not, but think carefully. You could cut carrots, for instance, and leave them in the fridge for tomorrow. You could make that side dish that actually tastes better when it’s made in advance and has some time to marinate in itself (read: nearly every side dish ever). You could be really Type A and prep all your baking ingredients for the following day, mise en place style. Or not. You do you.
Make a final schedule for the day-of, and think about any last-minute things you may have forgotten. Again with the forks and the not owning them. Sometimes it’s the most obvious things are the ones that get lost in the scuffle.
Dream up your seating arrangements (this part’s fun) and write out your place cards. Maybe keep arch-nemeses on opposite ends of the table.
Cook and bake! You know what to do. If you don’t, there are recipes below to help you out.
Light some candles and turn on some music. Do this before people arrive, not after!
Chill out. Stop zooming around your kitchen a few hours before the dinner, because nobody likes a stressed-out host. Really. I think this one’s sort of an underrated aspect of hosting—you’ve got to schedule some time to put on makeup and sit around doing nothing.
Once again, remind yourself of the real meaning of the holiday. Then live it.
The Cheat Sheet
A glossary of terms you might hear on Rosh Hashanah, plus a few readings and the spiritual meaning behind all that pretty stuff you’re throwing on your dining room table.
Rosh Hashanah : This holiday—the Jewish New Year! Translates to “the head of the year.”
Chag sameach : “Happy holiday!”; probably the most frequently-used greeting on Jewish holidays.
L’shanah tovah / l’shanah tovah u’metukah : Another oft-used Hebrew greeting you’ll hear, but this one’s specifically for Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays. It translates to “for a good and sweet year.”
Elul : The “month of reflection” that culminates in the High Holidays. It’s the last month of the Jewish calendar. We’re encouraged to use this time to prepare / plan / forgive / seek forgiveness / mend / resolve in little ways (cleaning our homes, trying a different exercise routine, buying fall clothes...but also praying, reading poetry, apologizing, having thoughtful conversations, getting back in touch with old friends, etc.!) so that when we do finally arrive at Rosh Hashanah, we feel ready and rested. That way, we can actually savor the experience of entering the new year (and making peace with the old) instead of feeling hurried and unsettled or even scared. Kind of like how Americans make New Year’s resolutions *before* January 1. Cool, right?
Selichot : A word you might hear at synagogue! Means “forgivenesses.”
Mahzor : This word means “cycle,” but specifically refers to the prayer book and song repertoire used for the High Holidays.
Shofar : The ram’s horn that’s used on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and during Elul.
Tashlich : The word itself means “cast away,” but specifically this refers to a ceremony that’s of the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
Helpful Readings & Resources
Living a Jewish Life | Anita Diamant
A Modern Guide to Rosh Hashanah | Nourish Co.
Rosh Hashanah: Study, Stories, Etc. | Chabad
High Holiday Liturgy | RitualWell
Elul: A Month for Reflection & Action | RitualWell
Rosh Hashanah 101 | My Jewish Learning
Modern Ritual on Instagram | @modern_ritual
Ideas & Inspiration
Add a runner! It’s an easy, inexpensive way to add some flair to your table without having to resort to an old-school tablecloth (which, in my opinion, can look a little 80s if you’re not careful, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong!). I got this one on Amazon for around $15 and was thrilled with it. The same company makes a ton of different colors, so you could opt for whatever works best for your table. And the best part, of course, is that it’ll be reusable (assuming no one gets too carried away with his or her honey dipping).
Pick a few Rosh Hashanah motifs, then use them repeatedly to create your “theme”: I’m all for ignoring themes altogether, to be honest, but there are certain can’t-go-without elements and central motifs that I can’t imagine hosting Rosh Hashanah without. Those are apples and honey, of course—but also pomegranates and, if you’re celebrating Sephardic style, a whole slew of other symbolic foods (leeks, dates, and carrots, to name just a few). You could even place a shofar in the middle of the table and decorate it with eucalyptus leaves to spruce it up—instant centerpiece! Here, I kept things simple by adding a few extra un-cut apples and pomegranates (from the supermarket, nothing fancy!) around the runner. Easy.
A gorgeous floral arrangement is always a good idea. Actually, I can’t really imagine throwing a dinner party without flowers! You don’t have to go totally over-the-top—a collection of tiny bud vases would work just as beautifully here—but if you’re up for it, arranging a few flowers is a fun way to reinforce whatever colors you’ve got going on and it’s...just plain pretty! One thing I always try to keep in mind when planning a floral arrangement is that it shouldn’t be too high, lest your guests have a tough time actually seeing each other over it. Go for a lower, squat vase. (On the other hand, if you’re hosting sworn enemies, a ginormous floral arrangement in between the two of them might not be a bad idea. Your call.)
Round challah, meet round cake stand: In general, I like to vary the height of my serving platters to provide some visual interest, so I’d probably naturally opt for a cake stand no matter what holiday I was decorating for. But in this instance, I was really feeling that round shape—it’s such a nice way to accentuate the round challah. If you’ve got a family heirloom challah board, by all means, go ahead and use it! I just thought this was a fun, different approach to the whole challah-serving thing. (Also, real talk, if you’re gonna spend all day slaving away in your kitchen over challah dough, you might as well elevate and draw attention to it.)
Pretty silverware doesn’t have to be expensive: These gold forks, knives, and spoons are all available on Amazon for around $20 for a set of 160. Truly a sweet deal. If you don’t mind that the edges of the cutlery is sort of scuffed. Also the paint was peeling on nearly all of them. Eh. On second thought, not sure I’m giving this set a wholehearted review. But the POINT is, you can grab nice disposable silverware online and your guests will be none the wiser. Until they see the scuffed parts.
You’ll save money on decorative elements if your food and drink are decorative elements. *And,* first and foremost, taste good. Yes, yes. This is probably my favorite entertaining truism, though. If you’re on a budget, beautifying your food is actually the easiest way to throw a gorgeous dinner party without having to buy random extra decorative elements. That apples and honey board is really pulling its weight, for instance, as is the challah (aha! Another reason for the cake board!). It’s why I love having food on the table as soon as people arrive—an empty table is a sad table.
Place cards aren’t a throwaway detail! Okay, so not all of us are blessed with the handwriting of my friend Maria. (I mean, my own penmanship is an absolute DISGRACE. Hence Maria.) But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try throwing together a few place cards! They’re cute! And a nice way to direct the seating. I was so excited (read: too excited) about these ones, which are tied with grey baker’s twine to little olive-wood honey dippers. I know some people are more into a casual, free-for-all seating situation, and I get and RESPECT that, but I’m gonna stick to my guns here. My cute place card guns.
The After Party
So, you’ve put away the candlesticks and cleaned the zillions of dishes and sent your guests home...now what?
Well, Rosh Hashanah is a holiday about gratitude and new beginnings, so you might consider giving money to others during this time in order to help them achieve their own “beginnings.” (Tzedakah is important all year long, but its significance is highlighted at Rosh Hashanah.)
Another idea is to make an annual blood donation before the holiday in the spirit of “celebrating life.”
Similarly, you could visit a Jewish nursing home or volunteer with the elderly as a symbol of your understanding that every component and era of life is important, including the later days and end of one’s life.