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Thoughts on the Symbolic Foods for Rosh Hashanah

I was in Evanston last week at the “Kosher Jewel” to pick up a couple of items and as I glanced at the packages in the kosher meat department, I was surprised to see a number of little boxes labeled “Kosher sheep’s head, fully-cooked.”  These were Glatt Kosher, prepared by Meal Mart.  A quick look on Amazon found that they also have them available and will send these “mychels” to you in two-day delivery for less than $25 apiece, less in quantity.  I didn’t notice the price at Jewel.


What is this about?  There is a tradition, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, to have a number of symbolic foods (simanim) on the table to eat or, if not to eat, to look at, as tokens of our wishes for the new year ahead. I had heard that sheep’s heads, among these foods used in some traditions, were available a few years ago in northern New Jersey where there is a large Orthodox community.  Thus, these packages here in the Chicago area should not be a big surprise, though I wonder how many people want to actually serve them to their guests.


The origin of the custom of simanim in general for Rosh Hashanah appears in the Talmudic tractates of Keritot and of Horayot..  In Keritot, we find the sage Abaye quoted, after a discussion of some activities that may be seen as omens for the coming year, saying: “Now that we have established that symbols are a [permitted] thing (not some kind of sorcery), a person should have the custom of eating on Rosh Hashanah,kara (pumpkin or squash), rubia (a kind of bean or fenugreek), kartei (leeks, scallions, or chives), silka (beetroot leaves or spinach), and tamrei (dates).  The identification of these five items is somewhat uncertain in some cases. I’ve taken these interpretations from a lovely little book entitled “Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah.” The author is Jewish writer, storyteller, and educator, Rahel Musleah, who was born in Calcutta. Her father was Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah,who died of Covid-19 in 2020 at age 92.  Rabbi Musleah had come to this country and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  He served a number of Conservative congregations in the United States over the years including the historic Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia, and headed the Rabbinical Assembly Bet Din in that city for many years. He traced their family origins to17th century Baghdad. So, these identifications of the simanimhave a strong tradition behind them. The passage in the Talmudic tractate of Horayot is almost identical to that in Keritotexcept that instead of “to eat,” the citation there is simply “to view” (l’meichazei and not l’meichal). Some early commentators have the same reading of l’meichazei for both texts.


This statement of Abaye is adopted by the later law codes and, because of the variant readings, there is some leniency onactually eating this stuff, particularly due to concern that some of these food items may harbor worms, but also that one may be allergic to them or just not wish to eat them.  As usual, there are a variety of opinions on these matters. Some later authorities are insistent on eating them, it seems, but not all.  You may notice, by the way, that sheep heads have not yet appeared on the list at this stage. But wait.


The commentators give reasons for the specific choices listed in the Talmud. Rashi explains that some of these items grow quickly and others are known for their sweetness, both good signs for the new year. Other commentators see them as reminders of plays on words related to the Hebrew or Aramaic names listed, all indications of blessing for the year ahead.  Thus, “rubia” sheyirbu z’chuyoteinu, so that our merits increase. “Kartei” sheyikartu soneinu, so that those who hate us will be cut off.  “Kara” shetikra roa g’zar dineinu, so that God may tear away all evil decrees against us, v’yikr’u l’fanecha z’chuyoteinu, and that our merits may be proclaimed before You. “Silka” sheyistalku oyveinu, that our enemies will depart.  “Tamrei” she- yitamu soneinu, so that those who hate us will come to an end.


There is a tradition to substitute carrots for rubia since there is a Yiddish play on words for carrots, mehren, similar to rubia, indicating increase. This works for Ashkenazic Yiddish speakers, not so much for Sephardim.  Some of them use items that appear in large quantities, such as sesame seeds instead as a symbol for abundance. The later law code, Aruch HaShulchan,indicates that one may follow the local language in choosing these simanim, these symbolic foods, and there are those who have come up with creative additions in English, most notably eating celery in hope of an increase in salary in the year ahead..We see in later law codes as well that other symbolic foods got added to the list.  Ashkenazim have the well-known custom of dipping apples in honey and dipping the challah for hamotzi in honey as well.  The honey was for a sweet year.  The apples recall various midrashim that picture the people of Israel favorably.  Just as the apple’s fruit appears before its leaves, so Israel first proclaimed we will do and then we will hearken, na’aseh v’nishma.  Apples have three positive qualities, taste, appearance and fragrance and thus we seek three blessings from God, children, life, and sustenance, banei, chayei, u’mezonei.  The mystics also see the apple as a reminder of what they term “chakal tapuchim kedoshim” the holy apple orchard, a term used for the Shechinah, the Divine Presence.


Honey also, aside from being sweet, has three letters in Hebrew, D’VaSh, recalling three intellectual qualities da’at, knowledge, binah, understanding, and sechel, discernment or simply good sense. We pray that all of these qualities may come togetherwithin us to serve God.  Honey from bees is preferred to date honey because the bee’s stinger reminds us of the day of judgment.  We pray that God’s quality of judgment will be displaced by His quality of compassion.  One thinks of the Naomi Shemer song, “Al HaDvash v’al Ha-Oketz,” for the honey and the stinger, both of which are a part of life.  The Gematria, the numerical value of the letters of D’vash, dalet, bet, shin, equal 306, the same value as Av HaRachaman or Av HaRachamim, both meaning “Compassionate Father.” Some see the dipping of the bread into the honey as transformative, changing the forbidden to the permitted, sin to mitzvah, and transgressions to merits. This comes from the idea that the legs of the bees, ordinarily forbidden, become part of the honey and permitted.


Other foods added traditionally among the later authorities include the pomegranate with the hope that our merits or our good deeds (mitzvot) may be as numerous as its seeds, (gefilte) fish, a symbol of fertility, and finally the head of a sheep, so that we may be the head and not the tail, a prayer for leadership. Many Ashkenazim substitute a fish head for that of a sheep and others, not only vegetarians, have said, if you’re just looking for a pun on “head,” won’t a head of lettuce or of garlic, do as well?  One advantage of the sheep’s head though is that it serves as a reminder of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, a symbol mentioned a number of times during our Rosh HaShanah liturgy.  Since it was a ram who was substituted for Isaac on the altar, some are particular to find a ram’s head rather than that of a ewe.  We are warned however against using a goat’s head, for that is a symbol of sin, as in the scapegoat on Yom Kippur.


Rabbi Yehudah Leib Finkelstein, the author of the work “Simanim uMinhagim l’Leil Rosh Hashanah” Symbols and Customs for Rosh Hashanah Eve, the source for much of the information I’m sharing here, mentions a whole list of additional items that some have included on their table.  While there are some rabbis who decry any innovation, others welcome these opportunities to expand the custom with other foods.  Thus,there are folks who add such items as etrog, tongue, melon, cucumber, eyes, lungs, olive oil, and potatoes.  Each has a clever blessing found within its Hebrew name or its characteristics.  Thus, we too are free to add to the list items that may suggest blessing and sweetness in the year ahead.  I saw on-line someone suggesting actual sweets, candy bars with clever names associated with prosperity in the coming year.


As mentioned earlier, some insist on eating a bit of each item, while others think it is sufficient to place them on the table on display.  As Abaye indicated, some may be suspicious of this custom and think it had some element of magic to it. Thus, the tradition developed later on of adding a prayer to each item before tasting it or pointing to it to make it abundantly clear that these are symbolic of our wishes for the year ahead and not some magic charms.  These prayers all begin with the familiar formulation, “Y’hi ratzon milfanecha (Adonay Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu)” May it be Your will (Lord, our God, and God of our ancestors), followed by the blessing represented by that food item, the pun based on its name.  The most familiar of these prayers is the one we are accustomed to saying when we dip apples in honey.  Y’hi ratzon milfanecha Adonay Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu, shet’chadeish aleinu shanah tovah umetukah.  May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors to renew unto us a good and a sweet year.  Some include the direct reference to God in parentheses and others do not.


If you have a copy of our Lev Shalem Machzor, you can find the Kiddush and other prayers for recitation at home on Rosh Hashanah beginning on page 29.  They only provide the Y’hi ratzon for the apple and honey however.  If you are looking forthe prayers for the other simanim, you might check out the Open Siddur Project on-line, which not only provides the Hebrew text,but also comes up with some clever translations that carry on the punning in English as well.(


One last issue mentioned by Rabbi Finkelstein is the proper order for these simanim.  There are those who hold that oneneed not be concerned very much by the order and, indeed, various books list the simanim in different orders.  Some others say that the order is important and one should follow the order found in the Talmud for those five items.  Some would dip the apple in honey first and others save it for last.  There are other sages who are concerned with the order of blessings in general.  Fruit from trees over which we say borei p’ri ha-etz should precede those that grow directly from the ground, borei p’ri ha-adamah, not to mention the meat or fish items that take the blessing of shehakol which should be last.  There are also rules as to which fruit from the trees one should take first.  Some try to reconcile these varying opinions.  One authority suggests saying borei p’ri ha-etz over the dates, eating a bit and then proceeding down the list and saying the y’hi ratzon for each item and then when you get to the dates, eating some more.  In spite of all these proposals, someone else says that one should consider these foods as part of the meal and let the hamotzi at the beginning cover them all.


The order to me is of little importance, the items may vary from household to household. The important thing we are reminded is that all of these material blessings we seek, represented by the simanim, should be for the glory of God and to serve the Almighty and our fellow human beings created in the divine image. This is our task this year and every year.  We pray for blessing and may the new year provide us with goodness, sweetness, and opportunities to serve God and all people.  Shanah Tovah uMetukah.


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