Torah forbids us to engage in sorcery or magic. The penalty for such practices is the ultimate punishment. Nonetheless, we Jews avail ourselves of representations when communicating with Hashem.
It’s argued that as long as we acknowledge that our sigils are illustrative, not genuine, ordinarily, we’re clear to use them. Consider our widespread employment of chamsas and eye-beads despite the fact that it is our mezuzot, not those other charms, that protect our homes.
Linguistically, too, we allegorically invite the righteous inclination and ward off the evil one. Although we follow halachot about not using Hashem’s name in vain and about speaking reverently to parents, Torah scholars, and elders, nonetheless, we say “b’ayin tova” or “b’ezrat Hashem” to encourage good outcomes and “has v’shalom” or “bli ayin hara” to discourage bad ones.
Likewise, we literally wear our depictions of our intentions. On Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av, white’s our color of choice. Equally, we often wear black, a formal hue, to sma’achot. Plus, some of us henna brides before their weddings. Inversely, we refrain from tattoos, no matter the “potential numinosity” of any design, and we forego all but “makeup sanctioned for Shabbot” on our Day of Rest and on holidays.
Lists of our proscribed and our permitted signs could fill many pages. At this time of year, for instance, we share Rosh Hashanah simanim. These icons are minhag, not Torah law. Further, we ought to recollect, when serving them, that a meal’s “Hamotzi” exempts their “Ha’adama” and “Shehakol,” but not their “Ha’etz” or “Shehecheyanu.” What’s more, upon making Kiddush, simanim fruit need to be covered so that a separate “Shehecheyanu “ can be made on them.
The most famous Rosh Hashanah siman, honey, signifies שנה טובה ומתוק, a good and sweet year, i.e., a year free of suffering. Moreover, during the High Holiday season, we dip challot in honey, not salt, and dip apples in honey, תפוח בדבש, since we want both sweetness and prosperity. In a like manner, on Rosh Hashanah, we eat new fruit, פרי חדש, (or wear new clothing) so that on the second night of the holiday, too, we can say “Shehecheyanu.”
Beyond apples and new fruit, Rosh Hashanah seders feature other tree-sourced simanim. For instance, pomegranates, רימון , allegedly, have 613 seeds, which is the number of mitzvot we are commanded to uphold. Also, we eat dates, תמר, whose Hebrew name reflects the Hebrew word for end, תם. Accordingly, before we partake of dates, we ask Hashem to vanquish, that is, to put an end to, our enemies.
To boot, we use leeks and beets to ask Hashem to defeat our foes. Leeks are a curious supplement to our Rosh Hashanah tables given our holiday avoidance of alliums. In Hebrew, leeks are כרתי, while cut, in Hebrew, is כרת. So, before eating leeks, we ask Hashem to cut down our enemies. Beets, in Hebrew, is סלקא, and depart, in Hebrew, is סלק. Before eating beets, we plead to Hashem to make our opponents depart.
Beyond asking Hashem to afflict our adversaries, use carrots, black-eyed peas, and bitter gourd to ask Hashem to comfort us/add to our merits. The consonants in the Yiddish word for carrot, מער, is similar to those of the Yiddish word for more/to increase, מער. Before eating carrots, we ask Hashem to increase our merits/blessings. As per black-eyed peas, רוביא רב, the Hebrew word for many, רב, has a Hebrew homophone, לב, heart. We eat black-eyed peas as symbolic of our request that Hashem לוביא, open our hearts so that we can increase our merits. We ask, too, that Hashem grant us a quality of the bitter gourd, קרא, that He rip apart, קרע, any unfavorable verdicts against us.
Our Rosh Hashanah simanim are not only flora but also fauna. We serve a whole fish to symbolize being fruitful and multiplying. We put a lamb or a fish head on our tables to illustrate our prayer to be leaders, i.e., to be people resolute in our Torah commitment, and to represent that Rosh Hashanah’s the head of the year (albeit we celebrate three other New Years; 15 Shevat, Tu Bishvat, the trees’ New Year; 1 Nisan, the kings’ New Year; and 1 Elul, tithing’s New Year.)
On top of the foods that we intentionally include during the Yomim Noraim, there are foods that we purposefully avoid. Among the latter comestibles are sour and bitter foods like pickles and like spicey spreads. Furthermore, we eat no nuts except for almonds (which are considered stone fruit) since the gematria for the Hebrew word for walnut, אגוז, is the same as that of the Hebrew words for sin, חטא. Above those limits, many of us avoid red grapes, which some rabbis teach were the forbidden fruit of Gan Eden, and vinegar, a condiment with a sharp taste.
Together with symbolic eating, we engage in symbolic acting. We read Tehillim rather than nap on Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, because The Book of Lie and Death sits open! As well, we perform Tashlich, our emblematic casting away of our sins.
Whereas simanim, and other symbolic items and behaviors, are part of our heritage, our rituals are never meant to substitute for the vital facets of Torah life. Whether we use the head of a gummy fish instead of the head of a once live creature and whether we trek multiple kilometers to perform Tashlich by a full wadi instead of articulating our remorse near a running faucet, it will always be our prayers, our mitzvot, and our learning Torah that count on our behalf. Signs might illuminate, but they never actualize.