Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

Acute Angles: Simanim – not Omens

Hi Rabbi! In my ArtScroll Machzor for Rosh HaShana, the section after Kiddush where apple and honey and other foods are mentioned is headed “Significant Omens” (page 97). I thought Jews didn’t believe in omens?  Can you explain?  Shana Tova. Marcia.

Dear Marcia,

I am a big fan of ArtScroll. I believe their publications have done more than almost anything else to promote authentic Jewish living and learning in the last half-century. The phenomenon of Daf Yomi (learning a page a day of Talmud) wouldn’t have exploded in such a massive way without ArtScroll.  But no-one is perfect!  Occasionally, ArtScroll’s English (or American) idioms aren’t quite right.  And “omens” most certainly has missed the mark!

An omen is a portent of a future event. The eating of apple and honey plus other significant foods on Rosh HaShana night are not omens. As is made quite clear in the Hebrew page of the Machzor (opposite), they are simanim. A siman is a sign or indicator, intended to symbolically point the way to improved circumstances. But in respect of the simanim of Rosh HaShana, even that does not tell the whole story!

The mindset most associated with Rosh HaShana is awe.  That is certainly true of Rosh HaShana day.  But I would submit that on the first Rosh HaShana night, another emotion takes pride of place: optimism!

The groundwork for that emotion to take root is laid in a beautiful piyyut (Achot Ketana) which sadly most congregations do not say. Each stanza up to the last one concludes: Tichleh shana ve-kileloteiha. “Let the old year and its disappointments end!” As the slogan in the old sixties BBC show That Was The Week That Was (doesn’t that date me!) proclaimed: “It’s over – let it go!”

But in the last stanza, the signature tune changes: Tachel shana u-virchateiha. Let the new year and its blessings begin!”  

The Jewish condition historically is that, looking back, there were more “oys” than joys.  But looking forward, the Jew has always been suffused with hope. Without it, s/he would not have survived until now!

The eclectic and mouth-watering food-simanim of which we are encouraged to partake on Rosh HaShana night – a veritable mini-Seder going back to Talmudic times (even hinted at in Nehemia 8:10) and an invaluable chinuch (education) moment for those with children – affords us an opportunity to positively reinforce our optimism and hope by “talking up” the New Year, replete with visual, gustatory and olfactory aids!  As the legendary Rebbe Nachman of Breslav (1772-1810) expressed it in Yiddish: Tracht gut vet zein gut. Think good and it will be good!   In psychology it is called the power of “auto-suggestion” or positive affirmation. It is the perfect tool to fuel our optimism – as well as our taste-buds!

Until recently, despite the simanim being detailed in the distinctly-Ashkenazic halachic code Kitsur Shulchan Aruch (1864), many Ashkenanzi Jews only knew of apples and honey. This time-hallowed custom has a unique symbolism of its own, and I will forward you my essay Why Apples from my Lattices of Love series which will, G-D willing, be coming out as a book some time next year

Latterly (partly thanks to ArtScroll) many Ashkenazim have adopted the hitherto-predominantly-Sephardic minhag of the simanim.

Foods are displayed and eaten which contain positive associations, either by dint of creative word-play or due to their physical attributes Dates, cabbage (or leeks), beets  and pumpkin are eaten all of which, due to their names, symbolise the rooting out of negativity. Carrots in Yiddish is mehren, similar to mehr meaning “abundance”. The Hebrew equivalent is raba which bears a striking similarity to the word rubya, “bean” in Arabic. Pomegranates have a super-abundance of seeds (maybe as many as 613) and we hope our merits will match them! (An equivalent Moroccan custom is to eat sesame seeds mixed with sugar and to declare “may our mitsvot be as abundant as sesame seeds and our lives as sweet as sugar!”) Fish are a symbol of fertility and indestructibility – these were, after all, the only creatures not to be destroyed in Noah’s Flood!  Its head (or some hardy souls use the head of a sheep) prompts us to express the hope that we will be “the head and not the tail”.

But – and herein lies the crux – these are not mere empty superstitious musings.  Before eating each of the symbolic foods we utter a prayer elevating each of these foods, akin to a b’racha, each of which begins Yehi ratson milfaneicha … ”May it be Your will, G-D and the G-D of our fathers (that our merits increase, that we be fruitful and multiply like fish, etc.). Either everyone says the yehi ratson together or one person in the family says it to which everyone responds with a rousing Amein! (Maybe that’s what ArtScroll meant when they wrote about Significant Omens!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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