Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Simanim for protesters & selichot for all

A selichot performance in Jerusalem, 2014. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

The Rosh HaShana evening meal traditionally begins with a set of symbolic foods, each of which is a siman, a sign. The first and best-known of these, apples and honey, is based on qualities of the food – goodness and sweetness. We’re hoping for a good and sweet new year ahead. Similarly, the simanim include a pomegranate, because we hope our merits will be as numerous as its seeds, and the head of a sheep or fish (in our case, a head of garlic), because we want to be ‘the head and not the tail’ (Deuteronomy 28:23).

The other simanim are based on wordplays. We eat gezer, which means both ‘carrot’ and ‘decree’, because we hope for good decrees in the new year, and we eat rubia, runner beans or black eyed peas, because we hope our merits will increase, yirbu. Served together on a large platter at the beginning of the meal, the simanim are beautiful and delicious, and black-eyed peas make a great soup.

The prayers that have customarily accompanied the simanim ​since medieval timesfocus on the harm we hope will befall our enemies and the good we want for ourselves. Although I love the simanim, I find it hard to say some of these prayers. So a few years ago, I created my own version, adapting the Hebrew slightly to emphasize actions (and attitudes) over actors — destroy what is hateful, not who we hate — and offering a free English rendering that reflected issues of the day.

This year, when Israelis are fighting for their democratic rights, I’ve taken a few more liberties with the Hebrew text, emphasizing the themes of the pro-democracy protests, especially the demonstrations I attend in Jerusalem: a shared home; legal equality for all; human rights; reasonableness; checks and balances; ending oppression of minorities and attempts to divide through hatred; and, of course, democracy.

If you’re interested, here, in Hebrew and English, are my Rosh Hashana Simanim for Protesters 5784.  You can also find them here via For Hebrew only, click here: סימני ראש השנה למפגינים 5784. If you like the idea of moderate simanim without the protest element, the version I made last year is here: Rosh Hashana Simanim Renewed 5783. The themes I chose then are, unfortunately, still relevant.

May this year’s curses cease, and the New Year’s blessings begin!

!תִכְלֶה שָנָה וְקלְלותֶיה ותָחֵל שָנָה ובִרכותֶיה

You can hear the wonderful Rabbi Hayim Louk sing the beautiful piyut, liturgical poem, that’s the source of this wish here. The words, in Hebrew with transliteration and English translation, are here.

Speaking of Rabbi Hayim Louk and piyutim, look out for Selichot Journey, a magnificent new book (in Hebrew) celebrating the selichot, penitential prayers, mainly as they are sung in Sephardi synagogues during the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim. Full disclosure: expert contributors to the volume include my husband’s son-in-law, Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky! In addition to the short essays, it’s lavishly illustrated with photographs of manuscripts and performers, and with QR codes for each piyut so you can listen on YouTube or Spotify. You can choose between selichot as they are sung in the synagogue or as they are performed at this time of year in popular venues around Israel. Highly recommended!

Shana tova!

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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