There is a custom to refrain from bitter, sour or tart
foods on Rosh Hashanah, to symbolize our hopes for a sweet, pleasant year. The
Talmud declares that symbolic acts have significance. Therefore, one should not
belittle the customs regarding the foods eaten on Rosh Hashanah as symbols of
our prayers for the new year.
The Talmud declares that symbolic acts have significance.
There is a common practice to eat a pomegranate on Rosh Hashanah, as its
abundant seeds symbolize our hopes that we will come before G‑d with abundant
merits. Interestingly, the Ben Ish Chai (Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad,
1833-1909) writes that on Rosh Hashanah one should eat specifically a sweet
pomegranate, and he emphasizes this point several times. Of course, the
pomegranates we have today generally have a bitter, pungent taste. It appears
that in Baghdad, where the Ben Ish Chai lived, they had sweet
pomegranates. In any event, in light of the custom to refrain from bitter foods
on Rosh Hashanah, it would seem proper to dip the pomegranate in sugar to at
least diminish its pungency.
It is also interesting to note that the custom of the Ben Ish Chai on
Rosh Hashanah was to dip an apple in sugar, and not in honey. Perhaps this
custom was based on Kabbalistic teaching. Regardless, everyone should follow his
family's custom in this regard. [Same goes for bread -- my family keeps a bowl of
sugar on the table until Shemini Atzeret, which the kids just love!]
The apples eaten on Rosh Hashanah thus symbolize not only sweetness, but also Paradise...
It should be noted that the symbolic significance of the apple on Rosh Hashanah
extends beyond the simple fact that it is a sweet food. In fact, the Arizal (Rav
Yitzchak Luria of Safed, 1534-1572) remarked that there is profound Kabbalistic
significance underlying the eating of apples on the nights of Rosh Hashanah. The
Zohar refers to Paradise as the "Chakal Tapuchin Kadishin/orchard of holy
apples." The apples eaten on Rosh Hashanah thus symbolize not only sweetness,
but also Paradise, which is certainly an auspicious sign with which to begin the
New Year. Furthermore, the apple has a pleasing appearance, a pleasing fragrance
and a pleasing taste. It is pleasing and enjoyable in every which way, symbolic
of our hopes that the New Year will bring joy and success in all areas of life.
Furthermore, the Ben Ish Chai explained the
significance of this custom on the basis of Kabbalistic teaching. During the
period from Nissan until Tishrei, we are under the influence of the sefira
("emanation") of malchut, which is the lowest sefira and receives
its strength from the higher sefirot. Once Tishrei sets in, we move into
the sefira of tiferet, the higher sefira that gives to the
lower sefirot. The sefira of tiferet is the sefira
of Jacob, who represents Torah and who transmitted the power of Torah to
subsequent generations. Tiferet is also associated with the attribute of
"Emet" (truth), and on Rosh Hashanah we stand in judgment, which is based
upon God's attribute of absolute truth. The apple, the Ben Ish Chai
writes, is associated with the sefira of tiferet, and we therefore
eat it on Rosh Hashanah, which marks the point of transition from the sefira
of malchut to the sefira of tiferet....it is proper to refrain from bitter and sour foods on Rosh Hashanah.
Of course, the vast majority of us are not versed in Kabbala, and thus do not
truly understand these concepts. Nevertheless, they demonstrate the depth and
profundity of these customs that we observe on Rosh Hashanah. Besides the plays
on words, such as "Yitamu Son'enu" ("Finish off those that hate us") for
the "Tamar" (date), and "Yikartu Son'enu" ("Uproot those that hate us")
for the "Karti" (leek), there are much deeper concepts underlying these customs,
and we should therefore observe them in accordance with time-honored tradition.
If a person cannot eat one or several of the symbolic foods, either because he
does not enjoy the taste or because of an allergy, then he should either look or
point at the food while he recites the corresponding "Yehi Ratzon"
prayer. He certainly is not required to partake of the food if he does not like
it or is allergic to it, but he should nevertheless recite the prayer associated
with the food, and this, too, will have a significant effect.
Thus, it is proper to refrain from bitter and sour
foods on Rosh Hashanah. Pomegranates should preferably be dipped in some sugar
before they are eaten on Rosh Hashanah, because they otherwise taste pungent.
Some have the custom to dip the apple in sugar, instead of honey, and each
person should follow his family's tradition. The customs regarding the special
foods on Rosh Hashanah are based upon profound Kabbalistic concepts and thus
should not be belittled or neglected.
[Rabbi Eli. J. Mansour is the Rabbi of Congregation Bet Yaakob in Brooklyn New York. The above is adapted from two articles on //dailyhalacha.com, one
of Rabbi Mansour’s 7 (!) websites for Torah study.]