Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Rosh Hashana
To dedicate this lesson
Translated and edited by Hillel Fendel

The Reason For Symbolic Foods

Beyond their taste, eating symbolic foods such as apples, pomegranates, carrots, and beets on Rosh Hashana have a special meaning.


Rabbi Ezra Cohen

Elul 18 5781
The Talmud teaches: "One should make a habit of eating on Rosh Hashana pumpkin, fenugreek, leeks, beets and dates" (Horayot 12b). This is of course the source for the widely-practiced custom (cited also in the Shulchan Arukh) of eating simanim, or symbolic foods, on Rosh Hashana. We also add a short prayer beginning with the words y'hi ratzon, asking that it be HaShem's will to bring us a particular blessing connected with the names of the symbolic fruits or vegetables that we eat. For instance, beets are "selek" in Hebrew, from the same root as "to remove," and we ask for our enemies to be "removed" in the new year. Our prayers when eating the other symbolic foods feature similar puns and word games – but behind them lies a sublime message.
The Magen Avraham, one of the renowned Halakhic authorities of the latter centuries, rules that one may take any food with a name - even in English! - that can be "manipulated" to express one of our wishes for the new year. Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin writes that the name of an item tells us of its essence and source, through which we can grasp onto the point of sanctity within it.

The Sfat Emet explains the depth of these simanim by citing the Zohar: "They all cry out in prayer on Yom Kippur like dogs saying, 'Hav, hav, [give, give] us food, forgiveness, atonement, and life; inscribe us for life.' But they are brazen, just like those who worship stars and cry out to them, and they have no shame." The Zohar is telling us that the Days of Awe are not for asking for our personal needs, but rather are special days in which we engage exclusively in installing HaShem as King over us and developing both our love and fear of Him.

The Sfat Emet poses this question: "The Sages themselves enacted our prayer liturgy, which are replete with our personal requests! What is wrong with asking HaShem to fulfill our needs?" He answers that the Zohar's gripe is against those who yell out like dogs, "Hav – fork it over!" and whose primary prayer is to receive more and more. In truth, the essence of our prayer should be the opposite: that all our needs be those that cleave to the source of life, from which we will receive great abundance.

This is an important lesson for us. On Rosh Hashana, HaShem distributes life to all His creations, and on this day, too, we are to ask for this life that He is offering. We must seek to use it only for its most sublime and basic – and therefore, its most natural – purpose: that of serving HaShem. We want food, and we want life, and we want forgiveness, but it is all not for their sake alone, but so that we can better serve HaShem! This is what our soul cries out for!

We are essentially asking that HaShem connect our lives, our food, and our children to the source of Divine holiness –through which, we will inevitably be showered with abundance. But this is not the main thing; the main thing is actually the very connection and cleaving of everything to its source – again, that which our soul seeks always to do.

With this, the Sfat Emet explains the custom of the simanim. These symbolic foods hint to us that everything in the world is so that we can extract from it its particular essence that can be used for the service of HaShem. They tell us that behind every cooked dish and behind every vegetable lies a hidden but powerful force, a force of life that sustains and give it existence. The needs of This World are only like "outer garments" for the inner life and vitality hidden within them. This is why the Zohar rails against those who concentrate on the "outer garments" on this special, powerful day of Rosh Hashana, instead of focusing on the spirit of life. Rosh Hashana is the day on which our vitality was created, and which influences and directs it every year thereafter. Instead of concentrating on our clothing, we must be directed towards the life itself that is within the clothing. And according to each person's desire and his concentration in his service of Hashem, so he will receive.

May it be HaShem's will that we merit on this coming Rosh Hashana to receive abundance of life from the Source of Life for the entire year. And especially may the beginning of the year 5781 harbinger the end of this plague around the world, with a true, speedy, and full recovery to all those who are ill, physically and spiritually.

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