On Rosh HaShana we stand, as it were, before the Heavenly Court, while each of our past actions, words, and thoughts are scrutinized and our future decided. To help ourselves focus on the implications of the day, one widespread custom is to eat “auspicious” foods – “Simanim” – symbolizing the propitious year with which we pray to be blessed.
Simanim literally means “signs”, and though sometimes translated as “omens” I think that gives a very misleading impression of what they are to most people who observe them.
The source for this custom is Talmudic passages (Horayot 12a, K’ritot 6a), in which the sage Abbaye describes various foods that auger a benevolent judgment in Heaven. Each food contains an auspicious hint or play-on-words, such as apple jam for a “sweet” year, Dates (“tamar”) that our enemies “be destroyed” (“yitamoo”).
The foods are eaten at the beginning of the evening meal, each preceded by a short prayer. This illustration is of the Baghdad version.
In the above mentioned Talmudic passages, Abbaye mentions five simanim: Kara (gourd, vegetable marrow, pumpkin), karti (leek); silka (spinach or beetroot), tamre (dates), and robia (black-eyed or runner beans). In the accompanying prayers each name is associated with an auspicious hope for the future. Although some people feel uncomfortable about the negative ones (“May our enemies be destroyed”), it has been suggested that these are an oblique reference to our sins – as it is customary to avoid any direct mention of sin on Rosh Hashannah.
The Geonim (7th – 11th centuries) introduced a sheep’s head (“May we be at the head not the tail”), fatty meats, and sweet drinks. Some Sephardim follow the sheep’s head custom literally, which has resulted in some gruesome shrink-wrapped packages appearing in the freezer section of some Israeli supermarkets at this time of year. Ashkenazim tend to favour fish heads. In many contemporary Sephardi families – including mine – the “head” has been modified to pickled tongue, both because we like tongue and because of the reduced “yuk” factor.
Propelled by the kabbalists the custom developed a rigidly stylized format in many Sephardi communities, and great efforts are made to ensure that all the items listed are on the table. In fact it has been suggested that a fun activity for the New Year meal is to invite people with different traditions and watch the development of a heated argument over which is the correct order of the foods.
Here are some of the most well-known lists:
Kaf Hachayim writes (583:6) that if one is concerned about the kashrut of a food item (such as worm infestation), or simply does not enjoy that food, one should simply gaze at it while saying the prayer. After all, the main point is the prayer.
In Ashkenazi communities the custom developed in a far less rigid and stylized way. Pomegranate is popular. Apple in honey, which Tur describes as having originated in Germany, was eventually adopted by other communities and is arguably today the best known of the simanim. The kabbalists objected to the use of honey (based on implications from Lev. 2:11) and therefore a delicious apple jam called “Marabba” was developed instead. Jews of Portuguese or Italian origin have a similar preparation made with quince, known as “Dulce de Membrillo“.
Salt vs. sugar?
Ashkenazim dip their challah in honey too, and for the same reason as above, the Eastern Sephardim use granulated sugar instead.
In my family the custom is to have a small bowl of white sugar on the table, in addition to the customary bowl of salt, from New Year till the end of Succot, and to dip the bread in both. As a symbol of the sweetness we wish for one another, the challah is pressed and twisted into the sugar (so as much as possible clings to it) after its light dip in the salt.
Sorcery or prayer?
The Torah prohibits any form of sorcery or divination. If so, how can we suggest that using certain foods can influence our fortunes in the coming year?
The Geonim (Beginning of Yoma, Or Zarua 257) were challenged by some that this and other customs (such as kapporot and gazing at the fingernails in the light of the havdalah candle) violate a Torah prohibition of divination. They responded by defending the Talmudic custom.
Maharsha (Horayot 12b) draws a distinction between simanim which are an omen for a positive outcome, and sorcery where a negative result is understood to bode ill for the future. The latter may constitute nichush, interpreting a situation as a negative omen (e.g. food falling from one’s mouth or a deer crossing one’s path (Sanhedrin Ch 7), which is prohibited by the Torah. On the other hand, partaking of the simanim on Rosh HaShana is permitted since they symbolise a good future, while refraining from them is not indicative of anything at all.
Meiri (ibid.) wrote that no-one is claiming that the simanim have intrinsic power or benefit, their purpose is simply to awaken our hearts and inspire us to direct our goals for the new year along the proper path.
The London S&P never particularly adopted the simanim, and very likely this was related to their general atttitude of caution to anything encouraged by the kabbalists. The Gaster Prayer book of 1928 says merely:
“It is customary to dip a bit of sweet apple into honey and eat it after the bread [of Hamotsi].”
In our times, however, as the community has come to include Sephardim from a variety of backgrounds, there is a feeling among many that this is a lovely custom that elevates the Rosha Hashanah meal, providing a pleasant and tangible focus for our prayers for the coming year, as long as it is not ascribed inappropriate powers.
In New York the custom was included (as optional) by the Revd. Dr. David de Sola Poole in the prayer book he prepared for the Union of Sephardic Congregations , in 1954. The precise text and order used seems to be de Sola Poole’s own invention. Click his photo (left) for the Hebrew/English text.
In his 1987 publication “Home Ceremonies”, Dayan Pinchas Toledano included (as optional) the custom of Rabbi Yoseph Haim of Baghdad (Ben Ish Hai). Click the photo on the right for the Hebrew/English text from this publication (includes an illustration by me for use at the table).
Tur comments that communities have always added to the list of simanim; for which reason, many Ashkenazim eat Zimmes (sweet carrots) since the Yiddish word for carrot is mehren, which is similar to the word mehr or ‘more’.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory is credited with suggesting peas for a “Peaceful year”.
Rabbi Heineman of Baltimore is rumoured to have served an interesting sounding raisin and celery salad, accompanied by a prayer for “a raise in salary”. (There is an even more contrived version if this apocryphal story where the portion served to each guest consisted of a lettuce leaf, half a raisin, and a piece of celery, and was accompanied by the prayer “lettuce, half-a-raisin, celery”; which works best when pronounced with a Brooklyn accent.)
The main point
The simanim remind us that our every activity on Rosh HaShana is charged with meaning. If the foods we eat are so important, then certainly our conduct is. Let us resolve to spend these days with a pleasant countenance and positive, upbeat spirit; keeping calm and avoiding any trace of anger even more assiduously than we pursue sweet foods. May we all merit a favorable judgment for a healthy, pleasant, sweet and opportunity-filled new year.
Thanks to Catriel Ceballos (Zakhor LeAbraham, Leghorn Simanim list and other information), Rabbi Jeff Berger (Rabbi de Sola Poole’s Simanim list), Aron Sterk, Salomon Vas Dias, Evan Millner and Raif Melhado for their valued input.