Rosh HaShana is a holiday that is rife with symbolism. Almost all of our actions on these days, even those that are biblically-mandated, have been given an additional, more symbolic level of meaning by our Sages. The themes of Akeidat Yitzchak and the kingship of Hashem are prevalent in or at read into almost every ritual procedure on Rosh HaShana, from the lengthy prayers to the blowing of the shofar to the additional supplications known as tashlich.

Among the rituals that are purely symbolic is the eating of various fruits and vegetables that are meant to serve as a sign for prosperity and success in the year to come. We will take a closer look at some of the foods that are eaten and the reasons behind them. However, we will first take a look at an interesting issue that arises concerning this practice.

The gemara in Horayot 12a has an interesting discussion concerning things that a person should do if he wants to know whether or not he is going to have a good year. While some of these practices, such as lighting a candle in a room and looking for shadows, sound like less-than-typical of Jewish rituals, they are not our concern at the moment. Our focus right now is the statement of Abaye (found also in Kereitot 6a), who says that once that we have established that such signs have actual significance ("simana milta hee"), a person should adopt on a regular basis the custom of eating (or seeing, according to a textual variant) squash and fenugreek and leeks and beets and dates.

There are various reasons offered for why these foods should be eaten. Rashi claims that they finish growing quicker than other foods do. While he offers no further explanation, one could surmise that Rashi sees in these foods a sign of success and of "coming out ahead of the pack," a theme that will come up with regard to other foods traditionally eaten on Rosh HaShana. The Peirush Agaddot of Rabbeinu Yedaya HaPenini offers a rather intriguing explanation. He claims that it is well-known to all gardeners that these foods grow better if there are loud noises present while they are growing, since the noises shake the ground and allow the sun to penetrate better. In a similar fashion, we should be receptive to the sound of the shofar that is blown on Rosh HaShana and experience a high level of personal growth as a result of the feelings of repentance and introspection that we are inspired to on this day. Finally, there are the reasons offered by Mordechai, which are cited by the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch, which focus on wordplays with the names of these foods. These will be looked at a little closer later in this Chabura.

Regardless of the particular reason offered, all of these explanations have to face up to a serious issue, one raised by the Maharsha. Maharsha wonders how we are allowed to do things as signs of future events, when this seems to be explicitly forbidden by the Torah in its prohibition on divining (Vayikra 19:26)! To deal with this problem, he offers an original and interesting theological answer. He claims that that which is good in this world comes as a direct result of Hashem's actions. By contrast, when things go bad, that comes as a result of Hashem pulling back somewhat. As such, when good lies in one's future, that is guaranteed to come, since Hashem is trustworthy to fulfill his intentions. However, when bad is in the forecast, there is still a chance that it can be changed, since it is not being delivered with the full imprimatur of Hashem. As such, a person who does things as signs of future good is simply performing some action as an indication of something which will be forthcoming from Hashem, while a person who performs some sign portending misfortune does so by relying on the sign as a valid indicator of future events which have no guarantee of occurring. Thus, says the Maharsha, the former situation does not fall under the prohibition of divining, while the latter one does, since it operates outside of the purview of the full power of Hashem. The Magen Giborim backs up this view, by stating that one is considered a diviner only if he relies on his actions as accurate predictors of future events.

This view of divining has roots as well in the gemara in Chullin 95b, which discusses Eliezer the servant of Avraham and Yonatan the son of King Shaul as the paradigmatic examples of divining (Eliezer when he went to seek out a bride for Yitzchak in Bereishit 24, and Yonatan when he went to attack the Pelishtim in I Shmuel 14). Leaving aside for now the discussion as to whether or not they were correct in what they did, the gemara then continues to say that a child, a wife, and a house can be used as "simanim," as signs. While there is some discussion among the Rishonim as to how they are used as signs, the Tur (Y.D. 179) states that a person is allowed to say that he has had good luck since his child was born or since he got married or since he built his new house. Again, we see that there is no problem in designating something as a sign if the significance is meant to be symbolic but not predictive. (there is, of course, much more to discuss on the issue of divining, but it will take us too far afield of our present purposes)

Getting back to the Rosh HaShana table, the Tur (O.C. 583) cites the gemara in Horayot (and adds in that one should also eat an etrog), and notes that the reasons for eating these foods are because their names contain hints of various blessings that we hope for in the year to come. Fenugreek, known as "rubia," is a hint for "yirbu zechuyoteinu" - our merits should increase; leeks, "karti" in Aramaic, are a hint for "yichr'tu son'einu" - our enemies should be cut off; beets, called "salki," refer to "yistalku son'einu" - our enemies should be removed, and so on down the line. While the Tur does not seem to imply that one actually has to say these formulations, Rav Hai Gaon, who is the originator of these reasons, did say them, and our custom has developed to say them in sentences beginning with the phrase "yehi ratzon" - it should be Your will.

The Taz raises an obvious but often overlooked question from the Agudah - since some of the signs are positive for us while others are negative for our enemies, then why do we simply just eat everything we can, and if there is a hint for good it will be for good, and if it is a hint for bad for our enemies, then that will be the case! In other words, he feels that based on the reasons given by the Tur, any food could be made part of this ritual, and thus there does not seem to be any special significance to those listed in the gemara. Thus, he reverts to the reasoning of Rashi cited above, namely that there is something special about the way that these foods grow, and that is the reason why they are chosen.

There is a second obvious issue which often gets overlooked, and is raised by the Magen Avraham. He claims that people can eat any food whose name contains some hint of a blessing in the language that the people speak. This is based on the gemara in Berachot 56b, which says that a person who sees a cat in a dream can expect certain things to happen to him. However, what exactly will happen depends on where the person lives and what a cat is called in that particular place. Since the word for cat was different in different areas of Babylonia, there were different wordplays that were made and thus different future events predicted. Similarly, when we eat things as signs on Rosh HaShana, we can use things that have significance in any language. For this reason, the are several customs that are based on the Yiddish names of foods (and I see no reason not to eat lettuce, raisins, and celery, as a prayer to "let us have a raise in our salary" - a horrible pun, but effectively the same as any other such pun cited in halachic works).

The Tur also notes the practice of eating an apple in honey as a sign for a sweet new year. As popular as this custom is, to the point where it has been immortalized in a children's song, there are a number of halachic issues involved that one should be aware of. First, the choice of an apple is kabbalistic in nature. As Rashi cites in Bereishit 27:27, the aroma of the "field blessed by Hashem" that Yitzchak smelled on Yaakov when the latter came to receive his blessing was the aroma of the apple fields. The concept of apple orchards is prevalent in kabbalistic literature, and the overall image is that of a quasi-paradise.

There are also two blessing-related issues concerning the apple and the honey. The first issue is that one definitely has to make a blessing before eating it, even if it is eaten after one has eaten bread. This is based on the general law by brachot that food eaten during a meal that is not a inherent part of the meal requires its own blessing. However, there is a debate as to whether the apple is the important part and thus a "borei pri ha-etz" is said, or whether the honey is more important, since it provides the real sweetness, and thus a "she-hakol nihiye bidvaro" is said. While the Magen Avraham sees this as a non-issue, feeling that the apple is the important part, the Be'eir Heitev solves the entire problem by saying that one should have honey on his bread, thus leaving the apple as the only thing on which one still needs to make a blessing. Additionally, one should be careful to make the blessing on the apple, take a bite, and only afterwards say the "yehi ratzon." The reason for this is that the "yehi ratzon" is an ancillary prayer, not connected to the actual blessing, and thus it would be an unnecessary break between the blessing and the eating of the apple.

Other popular customs include the eating of a pomegranate, which is supposed to symbolize our desire to have our merits multiply like the number of seeds in a pomegranate. The Tur also brings down the custom to eat the head of a sheep or a ram, in hopes that we shall "be like the head and not like the tail," in addition to serving as a reminder of the ram that was sacrificed in place of Yitzchak. The Hagahot Ashri, Maharil, and Tashbetz took the additional step of dipping the head into honey for additional symbolism. The Magen Avraham notes that due to the first rationale for this custom, one can eat the head of any animal, and thus the custom has developed to use a fish head instead (a custom that likely came about in times when Jews were poorer and sheep heads were a luxury that could not be afforded).

Whatever one's customs happen to be, one should perform them while keeping in mind the ideas of the Chochmat Shlomo and the Eliyahu Rabba. The former states that all of these signs should be done as signs of faith in Hashem that He will do these good things for us, and the latter notes that one should use these signs as inspirations for further repentance and soul searching during this holiest time of the year.

Back to Chabura-Net's Main HomePage