The High Holidays are just around the corner!
On these two days of Rosh Hashanah, we do more than just celebrate the Jewish New Year. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on our actions and events of the past year, and to resolve to improve for the upcoming one. These days are known as the Days of Judgement, because it’s when God analyzes our deeds and sets the plan for the coming year.
What would any Jewish holiday be without food?
The simanim, or symbolic foods, are among the most iconic symbols of Rosh Hashanah. We eat these foods to incorporate and remember the seriousness of the day even during the celebratory meal times. Although it is a custom and not a mitzvah to eat these simanim, they have become common in many Jewish homes. Two of the most popular foods are apples dipped in honey, and pomegranates. Each food symbolizes a different good fortune that we pray for in the coming year.
These foods are generally eaten at the beginning of the two evening Rosh Hashanah meals. Each food is given separate attention and a brief blessing. Throughout the years, these symbolic foods have grown and evolved, so the exact foods and blessings will vary depending on each family’s tradition. Some will also incorporate the simanim into the other courses, which is why honey or apple cake have become popular holiday traditions as well.
Many of these simanim can and should be interpreted according to a person’s own experience. Rosh Hashanah is an introspective holiday, after all. Below we’ve chosen seven of the most popular ones and the symbolic meanings behind them.
The Symbolic Simanim Foods
Apples and Honey
Apples dipped in honey are a symbol for a good and sweet year. We ask for both since the two are not always synonymous. Good things can often come through suffering, although we don’t ask for this route. This food represents fortune through sweet experiences.
The pomegranate symbolizes our good deeds, as they correlate to the 613 Mitzvot of the Torah. We eat a pomegranate seed and pray that our good deeds be as numerous as the seeds in the pomegranate to merit positive decrees in the upcoming year. Rumor has it that there are actually 613 seeds in the pomegranates, prompting many families to begin counting them at the table! (Spoiler alert: there’s not).
Head of Fish, Sheep, or Garlic
When it comes to the siman, many people recite, “May we be as the head and not the tail.” This is a blessing for us to take leadership instead of following others blindly. On a personal level, it’s an omen for confidence and taking initiative.
Carrots, Fenugreek, or Black-eyed Peas
Similar to the pomegranates, these foods symbolize increased merits. The Yiddish word for “carrots” is meren which is similar to the word mer for “more,”. Similarly, the word “rubia,” which refers to small beans or fenugreek, is like the Hebrew word “yirbu” which means “to increase.” This is an omen for a new year filled with good merits.
Beets, Dates, and Leeks
These three foods are separate simanim with individual blessings but one common theme. Selek, the Hebrew word for beets, is similar to the word siluk, “remove.” With this siman, we pray our enemies will be removed. Dates in Hebrew are called tamarim, similar to the word tam “to end.” This symbolizes an end to our enemies and evil-wishers. The Hebrew word for leek, karti is alike to the word karet, which means “cut off.” This is the hope our enemies will be “cut off” before they are able to harm us.
It may feel strange to have three separate simanim for this topic, but on a deeper level, “enemies” can refer to our own inner demons, prejudices, and bad intentions, which we hope will be removed, ended, and cut off in the New Year.
In Hebrew, kra, the word for gourd, is a homonym for the verbs “to rip” and “to announce.” This is a symbol of G-d tearing up any bad decree against us, while our good deeds are announced before Him.
Lettuce, Raisin, and Celery
Many of the simanim use wordplay, and some humorous and light-hearted traditions have started in recent years. One Rabbi in Baltimore started the tradition of eating lettuce, half a raisin, and celery to indicate “Let-us-have-a-raise-in-salary.”
Remember, we’re not using these symbolic foods as an omen, but to remind us to improve and pray for some important blessings. Feel free to get creative and come up with some of your own simanim this Rosh Hashanah!