Starting the New Year Right: A Guide to the Simanim on Rosh HaShana

Published Fall 2010

On Rosh HaShana, everything we do is imbued with extreme significance.  We stand in judgment before the Heavenly Court while each of our actions, words, and thoughts are scrutinized. To assist our efforts in currying Divine mercy, we employ various customs transmitted by our ancient mesorah. Among them is the regimen of the simanim, literally signs or omens. These are the foods that we bring to the table at the beginning of the evening meal as auspicious indications of a propitious year to come. What are the origins of this unusual custom? How can we be meticulous in its performance?  How do we harness its power to usher in a year of prosperity?

Origins of the Custom
There are two different Talmudic passages1 discussing simanim.  In both tractates, Abbaye deduces that it is worthwhile to interact with various foods on Rosh HaShana to effect a benevolent judgment in Heaven.  The version in maseches Horayos quotes Abbaye as saying that the benefits are gained by merely ‘gazing’ at these items, while in maseches K’risos the text states that these items must be ‘eaten’.  A third variation of the Talmudic text is quoted by the Ran,2 ‘to bring’ these items to the table.  The Ran reports that Rav Hai Gaon would have a basket of these foods brought to the table, whereupon he would hold each item and recite an appropriate bakasha.

It is our custom to eat the simanim.  Nevertheless, there are situations when one may merely ‘gaze’ at the items.  For instance, the Kaf HaChaim3writes that if one is concerned about insect infestation in one of the simanim, or if one does not enjoy eating a particular siman, he may fulfill the custom by placing the item on the table and looking at it.4

Identifying the Simanim
Abbaye lists five significant simanim:  Kara, gourd (such as pumpkin); karsi, leek; silka, beet; and tamri, date.  The translation of the last item, rubia, is disputed.5 This word resembles the Hebrew term for abundance and increasing (l’harbos); therefore, it is associated with plants that produce many off-shoots.  The Mechaber follows Rashi’s interpretation of rubia as tilsan, a type of shamrock or clover, while others identify it as fenugreek, sesame seeds, or black-eyed peas.

Why have these particular foods been singled out?  Rashi (K’risos 6a) explains that these foods either have quick growth cycles or possess a sweet taste.6The Geonim, cited by the Mordechai,7 points to a linguistic significance of their names, which is suggestive of good omens.  Rubia indicates that our merits or assets should increase in the coming year.8 Karsi suggests that our enemies should be “cut down”; silka and tamri refer to the removal and “obliteration” of our enemies.9

The Geonim mention the age-old custom of eating additional items not mentioned in the Talmud.  This includes eating the head of a sheep, as a request that Hashem place us in a position of leadership and not subordination.10 Another ancient practice is partaking of fatty meat11 and sweet beverages as a sign of a prosperous and sweet new year. The Geonim trace this custom back to the second Beis HaMikdash, when Ezra and Nechemia instructed the people on Rosh HaShana to “Go and eat fatty dishes and drink sweet drinks.”12

The Tur remarks that Jews have always added to the list of simanim.  In fact, regarding the siman of rubia, the Magen Avraham states that any food which sounds like the word for ‘abundance’ in any language may be used.  For this reason, many individuals eat carrots since the Yiddish word for carrot is mehren, which is similar to the word mehr or ‘more’.  Accordingly, many years ago, Rav Heinemann shlita introduced a now famous Baltimore siman to take lettuce, half a raisin and celery as an indication to ‘let-us-have-a-raise-in-salary’.

Apple In Honey
Any preschooler will tell you that the most important siman is the apple13 dipped in honey.14  Although it is not mentioned in the Talmud, the Tur records it as an old Ashkenazic custom. While some simply attribute its origin to the lack of availability of the items mentioned in the Talmud , the major commentators attach deep and esoteric meaning to this minhag. Maharil15 says that the tapuach is reminiscent of the sweet aroma that accompanied Yaakov Avinu when he appeared before Yitzchok to receive the brachos.16  Morever, honey represents an additional significance in that the numerical representation (gematria) of honey (d’vash) is equivalent to ‘Merciful Father’.17

The Levush mentions that there is also an Ashkenazic custom to dip challah in honey. The Kaf HaChaim18 notes that this minhag has also been adopted among some Sefardim.  This minhag is commonly followed during all of the meals on Rosh Hashana, at the seudah hamafsekes before Yom Kippur, and on Hoshana Rabbah; others maintain the custom through Simchas Torah.

Related Prayers
From the Talmudic statement, it appears that the siman is effective alone simply by eating or gazing at it.  Nonetheless, the Ran recounts that Rabbenu Hai recited an appropriate tefillah as he took each siman.19

Rishonim and later Poskim both emphasize that eating the siman is secondary to the tefillah which accompanies it.20Abudarham mentions two customs of how this is done.  The first is to utter a short supplication with each siman i.e. on a pumpkin one says, “Our decree should be torn.”  The second custom proscribes an entire prayer, “Yehi Ratzon Mil’fanecha”, complete with recitation of the Shem HaShem.21   It is permissible to use the Shem HaShem because it is in the context of a prayer. However, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach22 would recite it for the first siman only, since one must have the proper concentration when uttering it.23 (If a particular siman is unavailable, the Kaf HaChaim notes that the bakasha, supplication,may still be recited.)

Does one recite separate brochos on the simanim during the meal?  Generally, the brocha of Hamotzi includes foods eaten during the course of a meal.  However, since the apple dipped in honey is not a normal ‘meal’ food, it does require its own brocha.24 The minhag that places the apple at the beginning of the order raises a problem, since the simanim also include items belonging to the Shivas Haminim such as dates and pomegranates, which take precedence in the order of brochos.  Therefore, some Poskim recommend keeping fruits of the Shivas HaMinim off the table or in a different room until after the brocha is made on the apple, while having in mind to include the other fruits with that brocha.  There is halachic justification  for those who leave the fruits on the table.25

The foods used for the simanim requiring a ho’adama, such as pumpkin and carrots, are usually in a form of a regular ‘meal’ type food and therefore do not require their own brocha.26Those who use candies, such as jellyfish, should make a she’hakol before eating them.

Another issue is when to recite the bakasha.  If it is said between reciting the brocha and eating the fruit, this may constitute a hefsek (interruption) and invalidate the brocha. B’d’eved, if this was done, the brocha does not need to be repeated since the tefillah can be justified as relating to the brocha.27  To resolve this problem, the Rema writes that one should say the bakasha after eating the fruit.  It is sufficient to eat only a small bit, less than a k’zayis.   For those simanim that do not require their own brocha, it is proper to say the tefillah before eating them.28

When to Serve the Simanim
Abbaye established having the simanim at the “beginning of the year.”  Some Poskim maintain that this means that these simanim should be eaten at all four meals of Rosh HaShana.  Elyah Rabba and Mateh Efraim say that they should be eaten at both night meals, but not during the day. The B’nei Yissosscher derives from the words “Reish Shata” that the proper place is at the very beginning of the new year, on the first night only.  Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would also eat the simanim on the second night, but without all of the fanfare accorded to them on the first night.29

Simanim  or Sorcery
The P’risha (16th century, student of Maharshal) raises a serious issue concerning the entire minhag of the simanim.  The Torah prohibits any form of sorcery or divination.30If so, how can we suggest that using certain foods can influence our fortunes in the coming year?   There are three different approaches to resolve this difficulty.

1) This problem was raised many centuries earlier by the Geonim.31They were challenged by those who state that this minhag, as well as others (such as kapporos before Yom Kippur and gazing at the fingernails in the light of the havdalah candle) violate a Torah prohibition of divination.  They responded that any action which is established in the written Torah or Oral Law cannot be considered nichush.32

2) An opposite approach is taken by the Meiri.33 He holds that simanim do not have intrinsic power or benefit. The purpose of simanim is to simply awaken our hearts and inspire us to direct our goals for the new year along the proper path. To accomplish this, he explains that tefillos were instituted to accompany each siman.

3) A third opinion is offered by the Maharsha.34He draws a distinction between simanim which are an omen for a positive outcome, and forms of sorcery where a negative result is understood to signify an ominous future.  The latter may constitute nichush, interpreting a situation as a negative omen (e.g. food falling from one’s mouth or a deer crossing one’s path35), something which is prohibited by the Torah.  On the other hand, partaking of the simanim on Rosh HaShana is permitted since these actions symbolize a good future, while refraining from them is not indicative of anything at all.36

The Greatest Siman
The simanim remind us that our every activity on Rosh HaShana is charged with meaning. If the foods we eat are so consequential, then certainly our conduct is critical. Accordingly, the Mishneh Berurah reminds us to spend these awesome days with a pleasant comportment in a mood of sublime joy. No less than abstaining from sour foods, any trace of anger or annoyance should be diligently avoided.37 Thus we will be insured a favorable judgment for a pleasant and sweet new year.

1. Horayos 12a, K’risos 6a
2. Commentary on Rif, Rosh HaShana 12b, see also Meiri to Horayos.
3. 583:6
4. Teshuvos v’Hanhagos (II:266) recommends fulfilling both versions and to gaze at the siman before consuming it.
5. Rubia is similar to rubya, which means bean in Arabic. See Kaf HaChaim 583:10, Teshuvos v’Hanhagos (IV:136), Birkei Yosef 583:2.
6. Rashi in Horayos explains that these items grow rounder than other foods.  Divrei Yatziv (O.C. 252) states that Rashi wrote this explanation in Horayos which indicates ‘to gaze’, where a description of the taste would be irrelevant.
7. Beginning of Meseches Yoma, also in Or Zarua 257.
8. The Geonim mention assets, later Poskim mention merits.
9. Enemies here can refer to either our mortal foes, or to our sins. Direct mention of sin is largely avoided on Rosh HaShana (Zohar, Tetzava). This is one reason for the custom of not eating nuts, since the numerical value of ‘egoz’ (nut) is equivalent to ‘chet’ (sin), Rema 583:2.
10. Mishneh Berurah says that if a sheep’s head is not available, any animal will suffice. Tur records that Maharam Rottenberg used the head of a ram which is reminiscent of the ram that was offered at the Akeidah.
11. Later sources add that, unlike other Yomim Tovim, on Rosh HaShana one should moderate indulgence in fatty foods to avoid ill effects that may impede concentration in davening. See Yesod v’Shoresh ho’Avodah (11:1)
12. Nechemia 8:10
13. A sweet variety of apple should be used and not one that is sour. (Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, Emes L’Yaakov) Tapuach is commonly translated as ‘apple’. However, Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafos Shabbos 88a s.v. Pieryo) holds that it is an esrog. Incidentally, according to the girsah of the Tur, esrog is among the items on Abbaye’s list.
14. If someone is unable to use honey, the minhag can be fulfilled by dipping in sugar. (Kaf HaChaim)
15. Cited by Rema in Darkei Moshe (583:3)
16. According to Midrashim, this occurred on Rosh HaShana, see Biur HaGra.
17. דבש = אב הרחמן/הרחמים = 306. B’nei Yissosscher 2:13, Igra D’Pirka 368.
18. O.C. 583:4, see also Teshuvos v’Hanhagos II:267
19. Divrei Yatziv cites sefer Melachim (II:13) as a source, which relates the way Elisha demonstrated to King Yehoash that he would be victorious in his upcoming war against Aram by commanding the king to take a bow and arrow in his hand.  Elisha then placed his hands on top of those of the king and ordered him to open the window and shoot the arrow and proclaimed, “An arrow of salvation for Hashem; and an arrow of salvation against Aram.” Evidently, to fully harness the power of a siman,it must be accompanied with a tefillah.
20. Ran, Abudarham, Meiri (to Horayos 12b)
21. Shulchan Aruch HoRav
and Kitzur Shulchan Aruch omit mention of the Shem HaShem.
22. Halichos Shlomo, Rosh HaShana,
note 70.
23. See Chayei Odom, K’lal 5.
24. The honey requires no b’racha since it is tafel to the apple, Sha’arei Teshuva 583:2.
25. The Kaf HaChaim (13) provides a justification for those who make the brocho on the apple even with the other fruits on the table.
26. Divrei Yatziv
posits that in this context, even the ho’adama items, when eaten as simanim, will require their own brocho. This is also the view of the Elef HaMagen.
27. See Magen Avraham 583:2. There are some who have this minhag l’chatchila.
28. Kaf HaChaim
, Mikra’ei Kodesh
29. Matteh Efraim
, Ben Ish Chai (Nitzavim), Ben Yehoyada, Siach Yitzchok.
30. Parshas Kedoshim
31. Cited in note 7.
32. Similarly, Sefer Chasidim (12th century Germany) decries the widespread practice of witchcraft and fear of superstitions that were prevalent in his times. He counts four potential issurim involved in these practices. Nevertheless, he asserts that anything the Talmud deems to be a siman is permissible.
33. Horayos
34 .Horayos; Rav
Betzalel Ranshurgh in Horeh Gever assumes this is also the approach of Rashi.
35. See Sanhedrin, chapter 7.
36. Maharsha
bases this approach on the theological premise that only good emanates from HaShem while evil and suffering derive from man’s sins which drive away the Heavenly blessings. Once it is decreed that a person will receive good, it will never be rescinded. However, a prediction of doom and destruction can never be guaranteed since, as products of man’s misdeeds, by deciding to do teshuva, the decree can be averted. Our simanim are indicators of impending good that is en route, but one that indicates future success or failure is a form of nichush.
37. The B’nei Yissosscher illustrates the importance of avoiding anger during Rosh HaShana. See notes to Iggra D’Pirka page 234, citing Magid Ta’alumos, B’rachos 18b.