Is It Proper To Use New Simanim On Rosh Hashana?
The use of simanim is both proper and meritorious. It is only when the practice is mistaken for some mystical shortcut that will garner blessings from Heaven without any concomitant teshuvah that the simanim mislead us, distort the Torah’s true perspective, and impair our chances for drawing closer to Hashem.
The Gemara (Horayot 12a) exhorts us that simana milta, “signs are a [significant] matter,” especially on Rosh Hashanah, and prescribes a variety of foods that we should eat. As I heard from my Rebbe, Rav Yisrael Chait, shlit”a, it means that these special foods that supplement (or precede) the Rosh Hashanah meal remind us of the kedushat hayom, the unique sanctity of the day, which is a sanctity of din, judgment. Whatever puts us in the mindset of din facilitates our observance of Rosh Hashanah and our recognition of Hashem as King and is a catalyst for repentance. Think of it then as a seder for Rosh Hashanah – foods that recall certain ideas.
The danger of new simanim is that the relationship between the food and the message may be obscure or non-existent. To be sure, the foods we do eat on Rosh Hashanah night convey the ideas to us in Hebrew and occasionally in Yiddish. If there would be an English equivalent that is not farcical (e.g., eating berries so as to have a berry, berry good year) then it could be justified. I can’t think of one, but in any event, they should supplement rather than displace the prevailing simanim.
Nevertheless, the priority remains not the particular food but evoking thoughts of Hashem’s kingship and our need for teshuvah. And then we will merit a very, very good year.
Shanah tovah to all!
– Rav Steven Pruzansky is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey and author of “Repentance for Life” (Kodesh Press), perfect for the Yamim Noraim.
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The Talmud records the opinion of Abayei: “Since you hold that symbols are meaningful, everyone should make it a habit of eating the following on the New Year: black-eyed peas, leeks, beets, and dates.” It is told that when the Babylonian scholar Hai Gaon left the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, his students brought him a basket filled with different fruits over which he recited blessings and biblical verses.
Sephardim still follow this practice, generally before the evening meals of Rosh Hashana. Before tasting each item, a passage beginning with the words “Yehi ratzon” is recited, along with the appropriate blessing. This ceremony generally features delicious foods including dates, pomegranates, apple dipped in honey or sugar, pumpkin turnovers, leek patties, beets, black eyed peas. There also is a “Yehi ratzon” said over the head of a fish or lamb. Some Sephardim make a “soup of seven vegetables” that includes symbolic foods for a happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year.
Is it proper to add additional simanim? For us Sephardim, we already have plenty on our plates! Most others also have symbolic foods for the occasion, including apples dipped in honey. If they wish to add appropriate simanim that add joy to the occasion, why not?
The “Yehi ratzon” passages and the symbolic foods are a happy way to inaugurate the New Year. We pray that all of us, and all Israel, are blessed with a happy, healthy New Year. Tizku le’shanim rabbot, shalom al Yisrael.
– Rabbi Marc D. Angel is the director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals
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Since Rosh Hashanah is not merely the beginning of a new year but literally “The Head of the Year,” every nuance on Rosh Hashanah has an effect on the entire year, as the nerve messages that originate in the brain in the head effect the entire body. The Gemara mentions specific simanim that have such an effect, but they are not the only things that can have such an effect. And thus, these are not specific mitzvos that one is prohibited from adding to, but rather examples of positive symbols. Indeed, the Mishna Berurah adds that not getting angry is a very potent siman for Rosh Hashanah. Also not eating egozim (walnuts) whose numerical value is equal to seventeen, the same as chet, sin. Similarly, not eating pungent or sour foods.
Adding other simanim such as when eating beets, saying that we should beat our enemies (both physical and spiritual). Or when eating carrots which in Yiddish is meren, which connotes “more,” intending that we have more merit. I heard that Rav Moshe Heinemann of Baltimore instructed to eat a half of a raisin and celery and to intend to “have” a “raise -in” salary.
May we all merit a ksiva v’chesima tova and not forget that the most potent simanim are teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.
– Rabbi Zev Leff, rav of Moshav Matisyahu, is a popular lecturer and educator.
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You may have heard of the modern custom of taking some lettuce, celery, and a raisin, and reciting, “May this be the year when You let us have a raise in our salary!” Is it a joke, or is there something to it?
Many of us think that the siman of dipping the apple in the honey is the most authentic. After all, that’s the one siman which all of our children are familiar with and sing about. In reality, this siman is not mentioned by the Gemara. The Talmud’s simanim are: squash, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates (as cited in TB Kerisus 6a). The origin of using apples as a siman comes from Ashkenazic communities some time in the medieval period. It is cited by both the Tur (R. Yaakov b. Asher of the early 14th cent.) and Darkei Moshe in the name of the Maharil (early 15th cent.). The Tur then states that the custom in Provence was to place fresh produce on the table, representing newness, and to take the head and lung of a sheep as simanim. The Tur concludes that the Maharam of Rotenberg (13th cent.) had a custom of eating the head of a ram, to remind us of the ram that was Yitzchak’s surrogate at the Akeidah.
The language of the Tur implies that different communities and individual rabbis had different customs for which they found personal significance. It follows that if a person finds a food for their Yom Tov table that will inspire them and help in their process of teshuvah and actualizing goodness for the New Year, it would certainly be appropriate to use these items to enhance one’s spiritual experience.
Of course, using simanim that will evoke mockery and joking from others at the table would not be in keeping with the sobriety of the Yom HaDin, the awesome Day of Judgment. In this sense, Rosh Hashanah is different from Pesach, where we use fun props to keep our children awake during the Seder. On Rosh Hashanah, however, our attitudes at the table should be that of joyfulness over this wonderful Yom Tov of opportunity, but not infused with the same levity of a Pesach Seder (see Rambam Hil. Megillah & Chanukah 3:6).
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is mara d’asra of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation (“The BAYT”). He received his rabbinic ordination from HaRav Yaakov Ruderman, zt”l (and holds master’s degrees in applied physics and medieval Jewish and Islamic thought). He has served pulpits in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Allentown, PA. Rabbi Korobkin is the translator and annotator of the Feldheim edition of Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari, and is the honorary president of the Rabbinical Council of America.