This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Clash of Symbols*

Years ago I was approached by a newspaper food columnist who wanted to a feature about Rosh Hashanah recipes. I evaded the request with a general observation that the Jewish New Year is not really about eating. Unlike Passover that is defined so decisively by the obligation to eat unleavened bread and by the ritual foods eaten at the seder, and even unlike the fried dishes that recall the miracle of the Hanukkah oil, the High Holy days are observed mostly in the synagogue where the community turns its thoughts to themes of divine judgment, forgiveness and repentance.

Now this reply seemed satisfactory to me—until we got seriously into the household festival preparations. These involved procuring a variety of unusual edible items that were to be incorporated into the meals. The best known of them are apples and honey, and pomegranates. For most traditionally observant Jews, these and several other special foods are conveniently listed in the holiday prayer books along with the verbal declarations that should be recited with each one.

In many households it is customary to set aside a few minutes for a debate about the correct sequence of the foods, how their blessings may or may not be affected by the more inclusive “hamotsi” blessing over bread, and similar technical issues in Jewish liturgical law.

The practice of eating symbolic foods on Rosh Hashanah is mentioned in the Talmud in a discussion about practices that are supposed to presage the outcomes of future events, such as the biblical directive to anoint a king from a perpetual spring in order to presage an uninterrupted reign. In that connection Rav Ami offered advice on how to determine an individual’s prospects in various endeavours for the coming year by observing the stability of the light cast by a lamp, the rate if a rooster’s growth, or the appearance of one’s reflection during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

At this point Abayé concluded: Now that we have established that there is a significance to signs (Rabbinic Hebrew: “siman,” from the Greek “semeion:), it follows that at the beginning of the year a person should take rubia [fenugreek or blackeyed peas], leek and dates.

The Talmud does not provide a reason why these particular plants are specified. Rashi suggests that they are fast-growing, expansive or especially tasty.

Nor does the Talmud prescribe any texts to recite when partaking of the foods—in fact it is not even clear that they are supposed to be eaten. The manuscripts diverge as to whether Abayé spoke of eating, holding them or just looking at them. Furthermore, Abayé spoke in a general sense about the “beginning of the year,” not specifically about the festival meals on Rosh Hashanah.

The earliest narrative description of the custom’s observance makes its appearance in a letter by the eleventh-century Rabbi Maṣliaḥ ben Elijah of Sicily in which he describes the custom of his teacher Rabbi Hai Gaon in Baghdad. When Rav Hai arrived home from synagogue in the company of his students there would be placed before him gourds, Egyptian broad beans, leeks, dates, beets, a basket of miscellaneous fruits, honey and peas. He then extended his hand to each item and recited a brief wish built on a word-play from the food’s name.

All of Abayé’s foods were interpreted, with the help of word-lays, in connection with the themes of forgiveness from sin and exoneration from the divine judgement. Thus, for the gourd [Aramaic: ḳara] he said “tear up [ḳ’ra‘] the bitterness of our verdict.” For blackeyed peas, which he identified as the Talmud’s “rubia” (actually: lubia)—”may our merits be numerous [yitrabu].” For the beets [silḳa]: “may our our sins be removed [yistalleḳu]. For the dates [tamar]—may our sins be ended [yitammu]. Then the students would each take fruits from the basket to their houses and do the same.

Nowhere in this description does it state that the foods were eaten, only that they served as visual cues for the expression of the relevant sentiments.

Note that the account did not mention apples, although honey was included (along with peas!)—not, as in our custom, to symbolize “a good and sweet year,” but rather to evoke the image of the land flowing with milk and honey. The eleventh-century Maḥzor Vitry inferred that the French practice of eating red apples on Rosh Hashanah was derived in a general manner from the Talmud’s encouragement of symbolic foods.

Abraham Ha-Yarḥi of Lunel, author of an important compendium of liturgical customs, reported that the Jews of Provence had expanded the list of symbolic foods that served as favourable portents for the coming year. He mentioned a sheep head—to express the hope that “we will be a head and not a tail.” Maḥzor Vitry wrote that in Provence they would make use of any dish that was new, light and good. These included lungs which are light (probably to indicate the hope for an easy judgement), white grapes and figs.

From the Talmud’s juxtaposition of Abayé’s signs to Rav Ami’s instructions for prognosticating success in the new year, it would appear that the symbolic foods were also expected to predict or influence the course of future events. Indeed, authorities like Rabbi Zedekiah the Physician of Rome (thirteenth century) refers to the practice as a form of “naḥash,” divination.

This reducing the custom to a kind of superstitious fortune-telling was considered entirely unacceptable and inconceivable to theologically sophisticated scholars like Menahem Meiri of Perpignan, Provence, who dealt with the question in his Talmud commentaries and in his Treatise on Repentance. Meiri insisted that the true purpose of the symbolic foods was an educational one, to increase people’s awareness of the ideals of forgiveness and repentance. Because of their important messages, the rabbis permitted the use of simanim in spite of the risk that they might be misconstrued as divinatory acts, which are unquestionably prohibited. It was in order to avoid misunderstandings that they introduced the recitation of accompanying explanatory formulas.

Meiri suggested that the sages who ordained these customs felt that reminders of spiritual values are especially pertinent during a meal, when one is indulging in a physical pleasure. Although it is perfectly appropriate to enjoy the holiday food, we should not allow it to distract us from awareness of the celestial judgement that is taking place at this season.

A notable difference between our texts of the symbolic food wishes and those mentioned by Rav Hai Gaon and some other early authors has to do with the targets of the “tearing up,” “removing” and “ending” that are suggested by the food names. In those older traditions the reference was usually to the elimination of unfavourable divine verdicts against us, whereas in our current prayer books several of them are directed against our enemies. Meiri was familiar with at least one such formula—when leek [karati] serves as the occasion for praying that “our enemies be cut off” [yikkaretu]. However he tried to minimize the xenophobic connotations of that passage. He stressed that we should not be driven by vindictive, destructive hatred of foreigners, even those who are hostile to us (Unlike most of his contemporary rabbis, Meiri insisted that Christians are “bounded by the ways of religion” and not idol-worshippers). It is enough to pray that we should be left in peace and security. According to him, the “enemies” referred to in this formula are actually ideological foes, purveyors of heretical and sinful ideas who are the most insidious promoters of hatred and dissent.

Indeed, nowadays there are not many folks who believe that we can direct or predict our destinies by our choice of hors d'oeuvres. Nonetheless there is an undeniable wisdom in the advice that we pause before a meal, and devote some thought to defining our hopes and goals for ourselves and the world. The Rosh Hashana symbolic foods, used judiciously, can help us do that.

Just some food for thought.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, September 20, 2019, p. 14.
  • For further reading:
    • Dubovick, Yosaif. “‘Oil, Which Shall Not Quit My Head’: Jewish-Christian Interaction in Eleventh-Century Baghdad.” Entangled Religions 6 (2018): 95–123.
    • Feliks, Yehuda. Plants & Animals of the Mishna. Marʼot ha-Mishnah. Jerusalem: ha-Makhon le-ḥeḳer ha-Mishnah, 743. [Hebrew]
    • Halbertal, Moshe. Between Torah and Wisdom. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 2000. [Hebrew]
    • Katz, Jacob. “Religious Tolerance in the Halakhic and Philosophical System of Rabbi Menahem Hame’iri.” Zion18, no. 1–2 (1953): 215–30. [Hebrew]
    • Lewin, Benjamin Manasseh. “Ḳeṭa‘ Revii me-Iggeret R’ Maṣliaḥ le-R"Sh ha-Naggid’” Ginze Kedem 3 (1925): 67–68. [Hebrew]
    • Raphael, Itzhak, ed. Sefer ha-Manhig le-Rabbi Avraham Berabbi Natan ha-Yarḥi. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Mossad Harav Kook, 1978. [Hebrew]
    • Sperber, Daniel. Minhage Yisraʼel: Meḳorot Ṿe-Toladot. Vol. 3. 8 vols. Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1995. [Hebrew]
    • Stern, Gregg. “Menahem Ha-Meiri and the Second Controversy over Philosophy.” Ph.D., Harvard University, 1995.
    • Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. New York: Behrman’s Jewish Book House, 1939.
    • Urbach, Efraim Elimelech. “Shiṭat Ha-Sovlanut Shel R. Menahem Ha-Meiri - Meḳorah u-Migbalotehah.” In Studies in the History of Jewish Society in the Middle Ages and in the Modern Period Presented to Professor Jacob Katz on His Seventy-Fifth Birthday, 34–44. Jerusalem: 1980, 1980. [Hebrew]