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Why All the Symbolic Rosh Hashanah Foods?

Why All the Symbolic Rosh Hashanah Foods?

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Question:

I get the idea of eating traditional foods on the holidays. But Rosh Hashanah seems to be over the top. I was at a home where they had half a dozen dishes, each one symbolizing another wish for the coming year. It’s like thinking that G‑d will give you a better year because you ate butter, or a raise in salary because you ate raisins and celery—it seems downright outlandish to me. Why are we rational Jews doing something that seems superstitious?

Reply:

Since the days of the Talmud, we’ve been eating foods with symbolic import on Rosh Hashanah. In fact, the Talmud’s1 list of things to eat was even codified in the Code of Jewish Law.2 Why is that? Let’s look at some of the answers given:

Food for Thought

Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249–1310) explains that these foods serve to focus our attention on the agenda of the day: prayer, repentance and resolution to do good.3

In fact, he says, the custom was initially just to look at or eat these foods and reflect on their meaning.4 With time, people became more engrossed in the eating and less in the introspection; therefore, many adopted the custom to recite a short prayer before eating each food, to ensure that the message remained front and center.

By examining the short prayer that some recite on each specific symbolic food, we can understand what one should be reflecting upon when eating. Thus, the head of a lamb or fish, for example, is meant to arouse us to ask that we “be the head, and not the tail."5

Based on this, it would seem that the purpose of this custom is to elicit and better focus our thoughts, since, to borrow a phrase from the Sefer HaChinuch, “a person’s heart and mind always follow after the actions that he does.”6

Others, however, explain that the purpose of this custom is not merely to focus our thoughts; rather, the action of eating these foods itself can, in a way, influence the divine blessings.

Concrete Prayers

Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, known as the Maharal of Prague (1520–1609), explains that often divine decrees and blessings that G‑d bestows on this world remain only in a potential state in the supernal worlds, until we do a physical act to concretize and give physical form to these decrees. The transition from potential to actual is dependent on a person’s physical actions.7

(This is why the prophets would perform a physical action to symbolize their prophecy. For example, the prophet Elisha had King Joash shoot an arrow toward the land of Aram, the enemy of the Jews at the time, and take an arrow and strike the ground, explaining that the number of blows would determine the force of Israel’s victory over Aram.8)

Accordingly, the Maharal explains, we eat foods that have a good sign at the start of the year, so that the divine decrees for a good year will emerge into our physical reality and be fulfilled.

In a somewhat similar vein, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger (1783–1869) explains9 that eating these foods is not so much a prayer as it is an expression of our faith that we will be inscribed for a good, sweet year. This in itself, he explains, has the power to transform any negative decree into a positive one.10

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a sweet new year!

Footnotes
1.
Talmud, Keritot 6a and Horayot 12a.
2.
Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 583.
3.
Meiri’s commentary on Talmud, Horayot 12a.
4.
While the Talmud in Keritot 6a clearly talks about eating the symbolic foods, in some versions of the Talmud in Horayot 12a it states that “a man should make a regular habit of looking at the beginning of the year . . .” Although almost all commentaries are of the opinion that the correct version in Horayot is eat, there are some who argue that look at is the correct version (see Mesoret HaShas on Talmud ibid.).
5.
Other symbolic foods include dates, leeks, beets and carrots. The Hebrew word for “date” is tamar, symbolizing our request she-yitamu oyveinu, “that our enemies be consumed.” The Aramaic term for “leeks” is karti, symbolizing our request she-yikartu oyveinu, “that our enemies be cut off.” The Aramaic word for “beets” is silka, symbolizing our request she-yistalku oyveinu, “that our enemies disappear.” The Yiddish word for “carrots” is mehrin (“multiply”), symbolizing our wish that our merits should increase.
6.
Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 16.
7.
Be’er HaGolah, be’er 2.
9.
Chochmat Shlomo on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 583.
10.
It should be noted that the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 583, mentions a number of other customs that are done on Rosh Hashanah, e.g. tashlich and minimizing sleep. Those customs share similar reasons to those outlined here.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel September 15, 2015

List of Rosh Hashanna Special Foods Can somebody give us a list of all these foods. Of course different communities have different kinds in their experiences and traditions, do a proper study should include what is eaten where. I know of a Sephardi community which has at least 8 kinds. Reply

Anonymous September 13, 2015

Rosh shana If you don't want to play soccer, you shouldn't join a soccer team. Just because of the fact, that the members of that team might upset you with their accorded rules.
I don't intend to upset with this comparison Jewish believers, but I somehow found the question a little odd.

Actually I hoped to find some explanation for the foods used on Rosh Hashanah:
I know(?) the explanation for the beet, the date and the comparison with a pomegranate (the first two pure grammatical to make a comparison between the roots of the beet with the word for extinguish, the date with the word for decapitate and the - suggested - 613 fruits of the pomegranate with the encapsulated talents/merits(?) in every human being), but what about the beans, the apple and honey (d'sav)? Reply

Susan M. Risk Kanata September 12, 2015

sweet My partner is not too religious, but he delights in the day of apples and honey, when we symbolically celebrate the sweet things in life. Similarly, he will help to light the minorah, but doesn't say the prayer very often. These are diplomatic and caring events, that unite Jewish worshippers with people from their faiths.
Some of the most esoteric discoveries are housed in some of the most benign food choices as well- for instance the dairy meals on the celebration day for Torah- Shavuat Torah. The living symbols for these events are about ones' only clues to a series of actions resulting in the miracle of transmission and receiving. Reply

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