There is a custom, mainly among Ashkenazic Jewry, to refrain from eating nuts on Rosh Hashanah. There are different reasons given for this custom, each impacting the parameters of what (and when) exactly we refrain from eating.

Praying Properly

One reason given is that nuts tend to increase saliva and phlegm, making prayer difficult. Since we do a lot more praying on Rosh Hashanah, combined with the importance of taking extra care on this day that our words are enunciated clearly, we avoid eating nuts.1

Keeping Away From Sin

A more mystical reason given is that the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for "nut," אגוז (egoz), is 17. Seventeen is also the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for “sin,” חט (chet), not as it's properly spelled, but as it’s pronounced. We stay far away from anything reminiscent of sin on Rosh Hashanah, nuts included.2

On Rosh Hashanah, which is the day man was created and ultimately sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, we are extra careful both in eating symbolic foods with auspicious allusions and by avoiding those with negative connotations.3

Additional Reasons

Although the reasons cited above are the two classic reasons given, there are some additional reasons given as well.

Some explain that when nut trees are planted, their roots shouldn’t be covered, as it is not good for the plant, and likewise, we generally shouldn’t cover our sins. Nevertheless, on Rosh Hashanah itself, we specifically cover our sins (and we omit confession from prayer, etc.); therefore, we refrain from eating nuts.4

Additionally, some explain that a nut reminds us of our situation in exile. Just as a nut doesn’t get dirty when rolled in the dirt, as it is protected by its hard shell, so, too, during exile, our outsides may get dirty, but our insides, our souls, remain pure. Since nuts remind us of the exile, something negative, we refrain from eating them on Rosh Hashanah.5

What Is a ‘Nut’? And When Not to Eat?

Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rama), in his gloss to the Code of Jewish Law, writes that the custom is not to eat egozim, commonly translated as “walnuts.” Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, in his Shulchan Aruch Harav, writes that the custom is also not to eat luzim, which he defines as small egozim and is commonly translated as “hazelnuts.”

Rabbi Moshe Isserles cites the idea that the word egoz equals chet as the first and main reason to refrain from nuts, while Rabbi Schneur Zalman, in his Shulchan Aruch Harav, only quotes the reason that it increases saliva and phlegm, implying that this is the main reason for the custom.

Commentaries explain that if the reason for refraining from eating nuts is that egoz equals chet, then only actual egozim (walnuts) would be included in the custom. However, if the reason is not to increase saliva and phlegm, then it wouldn’t be restricted to just egozim, but other nuts (and nut-like foods such as peanuts6) as well.7

On the flip side, there are those who refrain from eating nuts until Sukkot or even Simchat Torah. This custom is based on egoz equalling the word chet. (Our judgments aren’t fully signed and sealed until the end of Sukkot, so they refrain from eating these foods until then.) Thus, the custom would only apply to egozim.

While some are lenient (according to both reasons) regarding nuts that were baked into a cake and aren’t so recognizable, others have the custom to refrain from that on Rosh Hashanah as well.8

Wait! Isn’t Egoz Also “Tov,” “Good”!?

Before we can end this article, there is a glaring question that needs to be cleared up.

If you know a bit of Hebrew, you know that the word אגוז (egoz), “nut,” is also the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word טוב (tov), “good” (both equalling 17). So why do we assume that nuts are related to the word chet, “sin,” and refrain from eating them, instead of saying that they are related to the word tov and eat them like the other symbolic foods?!

Strangely enough, we can find the answer in a note that was inserted into many editions of Rashi's commentary on the Book of Isaiah.9 The author of the note writes that he asked many scholars this very question, and he gives the following answer based on the verse in Genesis 2:17, “But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” The Zohar expounds on this verse to teach that one should avoid even good that is mixed with bad. Therefore, the author explains, although egoz equals tov, “good,” it also equals chet, “sin,” which means that it has a mixture of good and bad, and one should try to avoid even the good that is mixed in with the bad (and is not pure good) on Rosh Hashanah.

Interestingly enough, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, in his gloss to the Shulchan Aruch,10 citing the Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov HaLevi Moelin, who is the source for the above-cited reason for not eating nuts on Rosh Hashanah), writes that it was the custom for children to play with nuts on Yom Kippur!

Commentaries11 reconcile this and explain that Yom Kippur is a day of atonement and forgiveness (as opposed to Rosh Hashanah, which is more a day of judgment). It is a day on which G‑d transforms our sins—with proper teshuvah—into merits. Therefore, on this day, the chet, “sin,” (of egoz) is transformed into tov, “good,” so egoz only equals tov! Therefore, it was the custom to give the children nuts to play with on Yom Kippur.

May all our sins be converted to only pure good, and may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy and healthy, sweet new year!