The Rosh Hashana Menu - Simanim

Although superstitions, especially those from questionable sources, are generally to be frowned upon, the Talmud actually encourages one to eat symbolic foods on Rosh Hashana as "symbolism has meaning".[1] Many traditional foods have evolved throughout the ages in compliance with this custom. In most cases, the foods that are eaten are those whose name alludes to the various blessings and aspirations that the Jewish people hope for in the upcoming year.[2] In some communities, the symbolic foods are eaten only on the first night of Rosh Hashana, while in other communities they are eaten on the second night, as well.[3] In fact, many authorities recommend that one continue to eat these symbolic foods right through to Yom Kippur, as their influence is said to be effective throughout the entire High Holiday season.[4] There are also a number of brief prayers which have been composed that are to be recited when eating many of the symbolic foods.[5] Some have the custom to recite these prayers before eating the food while others do so after eating them. One who for whatever reason is unable to eat the symbolic foods should at least place them on the table as there is benefit to even just gazing at them.[6]

Among the foods recommended for their segula powers is the sweet challa bread which is regularly eaten at Shabbat and Yom Tov meals throughout the year. The difference, however, between the challot prepared for Rosh Hashana and those for all other occasions is their shape. It is common custom to make the challot for Rosh Hashana circular in shape rather than in the usual braided manner. This is intended to symbolize that just as round items essentially have no beginning or end, so too, we should be found worthy of receiving Divine blessing that is not subject to a beginning or end. Additionally, the circular shape of the Rosh Hashana challa is meant to resemble a crown as it is a holiday in which we essentially celebrate God's kingship over the world.[7]

There are a number of other customs on how the challot should be shaped, as well. In some communities the challot are shaped like birds which represent God's mercy upon all his creatures and is also reminiscent of the Cherubim of the Beit Hamikdash. Others shape their challa as a ladder which represents one's desire to climb closer to God.[8]

It is also a universal custom to dip the first piece of challa in honey on Rosh Hashana which symbolizes our hope for a sweet year.[9] Most people do so at the final meal before Yom Kippur, as well. In fact, in most communities it is customary to dip the first piece of challa in honey at all festive meals from Rosh Hashana right through to the conclusion of Shemini Atzeret[10] and some do so up until Shabbat Bereishit.[11] In some communities the challa is dipped in sugar instead.[12]

The apple is also a prominent member of the Rosh Hashana menu. The apple, which is also dipped in honey, further symbolizes our hope for a sweet year.[13] It is also considered to be auspicious to eat apples on Rosh Hashana as apple orchards are said to represent "the field which Hashem has blessed."[14] It is also taught that the smell of Gan Eden is identical to that of an apple orchard. Finally, the apple symbolizes the mutual love that exists between God and the Jewish people, as it is written: “Beneath the apple tree I aroused your love.” [15] Red apples are to be preferred as they are generally the sweetest variety of apples.[16]

There are a number of customs as to how and when the apple is to be eaten. In most communities the apple is eaten after one has eaten some challa, while in other communities the apple is eaten immediately following the Kiddush.[17] There is also a difference of opinion as to when the accompanying "Yehi Ratzon" prayer should be recited. According to some authorities the "Yehi Ratzon" should only be recited after one has taken a bite of the apple.[18] Others suggest reciting the "Yehi Ratzon" after reciting the blessing upon the apple but before actually eating it.[19] There is yet another opinion which recommends reciting the "Yehi Ratzon" before reciting the blessing upon the apple. Everyone should conduct themselves according to their custom.[20]

It is also a very popular custom to eat fish on Rosh Hashana because fish are said to be immune from the ayin hara – the "Evil Eye". It is also noted that since fish have no eyelids, their eyes are constantly open. This symbolizes our hope that God will provide a constant and protective watch over the Jewish people. Finally, just as fish multiply rapidly, we pray that the Jewish people will multiply and increase, as well.[21] It is interesting to note that there is an opinion that one should actually not eat fish on Rosh Hashana as the Hebrew word for fish, "dag", is uncomfortably similar to the word "da'aga", worry. Nevertheless, common custom is not like this view and fish is widely eaten at all Rosh Hashana meals.

Eating from the head of a ram or fish is also a widespread Rosh Hashana custom although no doubt many people find having such items on the table to be unappetizing, to say the least. The head of a ram is meant to recall the merit of the Akeida, the near-sacrifice of Yitzchak, in which a ram was substituted instead. Eating the head of a ram, fish, or other animal also symbolizes our hope that the Jewish people be "like the head and not like the tail."

Other foods which the Talmud teaches are worthwhile to eat on Rosh Hashana include gourds. The Hebrew word for "gourd" is "kra" which is also the word for "tear" symbolizing our hope that God "tear" up any evil decrees which He may have issued for the coming year. Beans and bean-like vegetables, often referred to in the Talmud as "rubia", sounds like the Hebrew word "yirbu" meaning "to increase" which represents our hope that our merits increase before God. Cabbage or leeks, called "karti" in the Talmud are also customarily eaten as "karti" is similar to "karet", to cut off, which symbolizes our hope that God "cut off" our enemies. One need not restrict oneself to these foods, as any foods whose name contains some hint of a blessing in the language spoken in one's region are acceptable, as well.[22] It is also common custom to eat a pomegranate on Rosh Hashana, which symbolizes our desire to have our merits multiply like the seeds of a pomegranate.

There are also a number of foods which are customary not to eat on Rosh Hashana as their names suggest or hint to inauspicious things. For example, it is customary not to eat nuts on RoshHashana as the numerical value of the Hebrew word for nut, egoz, is the same as "sin".[23] The other reason often cited for avoiding nuts on Rosh Hashana is because nuts are said to increase saliva and phlegm production which is certainly unwelcome when spending many hours in prayer. It seems, however, that almonds are the primary nuts which are to be avoided on Rosh Hashana and not necessarily other varieties of nuts.[24] Sour, bitter, and pickled foods are also to be avoided on Rosh Hashana.[25] Some people don’t eat grapes on Rosh Hashana either, as the grape vine is suspected of being the "forbidden tree" from which Adam and Eve had sinned.[26]

[1] Keritut 6a.

[2] Tur, OC 583.

[3] Machzik Bracha 583:2; Mateh Ephraim 583:3; Ketzeh Hamateh 583:9

[4] Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 583:1.

[5] OC 583:1.

[6] Horiyot 12a; Rif, Ran, Rosh Hashana 12b; Kaf Hachaim, OC 583:6; Teshuvot V'hanhagot 2:266; Piskei Teshuvot 583:1.

[7] Zemirot Divrei Yoel 2:408, cited in Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 583:1.

[8] Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 583:1.

[9] Kaf Hachaim, OC 583:4; Teshuvot V'hanhagot 2:267.

[10] Ktzeh Hamateh 605:38; Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 583:1.

[11] Lu'ach Davar B'ito.

[12] Minhagei Eretz Yisrael 28:17.

[13] Rema, OC 583:1,

[14] Bereishit 27:27, Rashi. See also Darkei Moshe, OC 583:3.

[15] Shir Hashirim 8:5.

[16] Machzor Vitri 223; Aguda, Rosh Hashana 22; Tur, OC 583.

[17] Piskei Teshuvot 583:4.

[18] Mishna Berura 583:4.

[19] See Magen Avraham 583:2

[20] Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 583:1. See Divrei Yatziv, OC 252 on the significance of reciting a prayer along with the symbolic foods.

[21] Minhag Yisrael Torah, OC 583:1; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 129:21.

[22] Magen Avraham 583; Or Zarua 257.

[23] Rema, OC 583:2, Aruch Hashulchan, OC 583:3.

[24] Magen Avraham 583:4; Be'er Heitev, OC 584:4; Piskei Teshuvot 583 footnote 37.

[25] Magen Avraham 583; Mishna Berura 583:5; Mateh Ephraim 583:3.

[26] Piskei Teshuvot 583:7.