Simanim foods for Rosh Hashanah

By Rabbi Fried Yerachmiel Fried

Dear Rabbi,

Our kids came home from religious school this past Sunday with the traditional apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. This is obviously a nice thing for the kids to have a sweet feeling for the day, but we were wondering if there’s anything deeper here for us adults to take away. Our observant relatives in Israel eat all kinds of things on Rosh Hashanah; is there a reason for that and where can we learn more about it?

Patty and Marc

Dear Patty and Marc,

You can find a complete list of the traditional “Rosh Hashanah Seder,” as some call it, in the ArtScroll Machzor for Rosh Hashanah. There you’ll find the list of fruits and vegetables traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah eve, with the appropriate prayers we recite upon each one, all expressing different requests for ourselves and the Jewish people in the upcoming new year. 

Each of the foods eaten is used because there is a play on words, or hint within its name, which coincides with one of our important needs. Here are a few examples: 

• Apples and honey are obvious, that with all their sweetness we ask God for a sweet new year. A deeper meaning is that the Jewish people, in various places in the Torah, are compared to apples. There are deep mystical reasons why this is so. A more simple explanation is that the apple grows differently than most fruits. Most fruit trees’ leaves appear before the fruit, providing it with protective covering. The apple, however, appears before its leaves, without that protection. The Jews are praised for being like the apple, that we live Jewish lives even though it often leaves us seemingly unprotected from our neighbors. We rely on our faith in the Al-mighty for our protection. The bee can sting and also produce sweet honey. We pray to be protected and receive only the sweetness, not the sting. 

• The date, or tamar, is eaten as its name is similar to the word tam, which means to cease. With it we pray to have our enemies desist and allow us to live in peace. 

• We eat a bit of fish and pray that we should be fruitful and multiply like the fish. We have a fish’s head (some eat from it, others just have it on the table), and pray that we should be, in the coming year, like the head (on top), and not like the tail.

• We do the same with all the other fruits and vegetables, connecting their names with our prayers.

These foods are called “simanim” or signs. We are creating positive, sweet signs for what is up and coming over the coming year. 

This is based upon a concept taught by the Midrash in the Book of Genesis, and expounded upon by Nachamides, a classical commentator (13th-century Spain): “Maasei Avos siman lebanim,” or, whatever transpired in the lives of the forefathers is a sign of what’s to play out in the history of their progeny. We can understand this by considering a young sapling. How it grows in its first fledgling stages, how it takes root and how straight it is in its beginnings will have a tremendous impact on how it will look hundreds of years later as a towering tree.

The halachic work “Chayei Adam” utilizes this concept to explain the simanim of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is the “root” of the rest of the year. How one acts to others, prays and conducts themselves on this day has a tremendous impact on the rest of the year. There’s a deeper meaning as well. It’s easy to eat sweet things on Rosh Hashanah, but far more difficult and much more impactful to BE as sweet as we can on Rosh Hashanah to others, especially to our spouses and children! That will impact the year for the good far more than simply eating sweet things!

Best wishes for a very sweet and healthy New Year to all the readers, with much prosperity, meaning and nachas, for all of our community and our brothers and sisters in Israel!

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