A variety of symbolic foods, called simanim, are traditionally eaten at the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah dinner. The foods are each accompanied by a short wish for the new year which includes a pun based on the name or characteristics of the food. In the most well-known example, apples dipped in honey are eaten on Rosh Hashanah. The accompanying wish is that we be blessed with a sweet new year.
Simanim in Jewish Texts
Below is an explanation of the practice of eating simanim and a selection of foods with their blessings.
Read the texts and answer the questions below.
On the first night of Rosh Hashana, it is customary to perform several symbolic rituals, to serve as good omens for the coming new year.
At the beginning of the evening meal it is customary to dip a portion of the challah in honey and after eating a piece, the weight of an olive, say: “יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְפָנֶיךָ שֶׁתְּחַדֵשׁ עָלֵינוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה—May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year.”
Then, take a piece of sweet apple and dip it in honey. First make the blessing, “בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָעֵץ—Blessed are You, Adonoy, our God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the tree.” After tasting it, repeat the above prayer, “יְהִי רָצוֹן—May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year.”
It is also a custom to eat a piece of the head of some animal, (preferably a sheep) and say: “יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁנִהְיֶה לְראשׁ—May it be Your will that we be at the head.”
We also eat certain vegetables, the names of which convey the connotations of good fortune, such as carrots which in Yiddish are called mehren (increase), and we say: “יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁיִרְבּוּ זְכוּיוֹתֵינוּ—May it be Your will that our merits increase.”
ונוהגין לאכול תפוח מתוק בדבש ואחר שיאכל יאמר זה: יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁתְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה:
נוהגין לאכול גם ראש איל או כבש זכר לאילו של יצחק או ראש של דג ויאמר זה: באכילת ראש כבש או דג אומר: יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלִּפְנֵי אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם, שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב.
באכילת התמרים אומר: יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלִּפְנֵי אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם שֶׁיִּתַּמּוּ שׂוֹנְאֵינוּ וְאוֹיְבֵינוּ.
באכילת הרימון אומר: יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁתַּרְבֶּה זְכֻיּוֹתֵינוּ כְּרִמּוֹן:
It is customary to eat apples dipped in honey and to say afterwards:
May it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors that we should have a good and sweet new year.
When eating the head of a sheep or fish say:
May it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors that we should be as a head and not a tail.
When eating dates say:
May it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors that our enemies be destroyed.
When eating a pomegranate say:
May it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors that our merits increase, as the seeds of the pomegranate.
1. What foods are pictured on the card and mentioned in the mahzor text?
2. What wishes (Yehi Ratzon prayer) go along with the foods?
3. Which of the simanim, if any, do you eat on Rosh Hashanah?
4. Write a Rosh Hashanah pun based on a food in the style of those listed above. The pun can be written in Hebrew or English and should reflect your wishes for the new year.
Simanim in National Library Resources
Below are two resources from the collection of the National Library of Israel.
Answer the questions below the pictures.
Carmel Market before Rosh Hashana, 1969, National Library of Israel
1. What is being sold in the photograph?
2. What type of market are the people shopping at?
3. What other foods might be available at the shuk (market) before Rosh Hashanah?
4. Have you ever shopped in an outdoor market? How does it compare to shopping at a supermarket? Which do you prefer? If you have never shopped in an outdoor market, would you like to? Why?
Giving apples to soldiers for Rosh Hashanah, 1984, National Library of Israel
1. What are each of the people in the photograph doing?
2. Why were apples and honey given to soldiers? Which holiday was soon to be celebrated?
3. How do you think receiving apples and honey made the soldiers feel?
4. Why do you think the young people distributing the apples and honey wanted to participate in this project? How do you think it made them feel?
5. What can you learn about the connection between Israeli society and the soldiers in the IDF from the photograph?
Simanim in Additional Jewish Texts
Composed in Uzhgorod (c.1844 - c.1864 CE) by Shlomo Ganzfried, the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh is a summary of the Shulhan Arukh of Joseph Karo. The Kitzur states what is permitted and what is forbidden without ambiguity, emphasising the customs of the Jews of Hungary at that time.
The selection below discusses the foods that were customarily eaten on Rosh Hashanah.
(ט) בִּסְעוּדַת הַלַּיְלָה, נוֹהֲגִין לַעֲשׂוֹת סִימָנִים לְשָׁנָה טוֹבָה. טוֹבְלִין פְּרוּסַת הַמּוֹצִיא בִּדְבָשׁ. וְאַחַר שֶׁאָכַל כַּזַּיִת, אוֹמֵר, יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁתְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָּה. וְאַחַר כָּךְ טוֹבֵל קְצָת תַּפּוּחַ מָתוֹק בִּדְבַשׁ וּמְבָרֵךְ עָלָיו בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָעֵץ וְאוֹכְלוֹ, וְאַחַר כָּךְ אוֹמֵר גַּם כֵּן יְהִי רָצוֹן וְכוּ', וְנוֹהֲגִין לֶאֱכֹל רֹאשׁ שֶׁל בַּעַל חַי וְאוֹמְרִים, יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ. וְיֵשׁ לְהַדֵּר אַחַר רֹאשׁ כֶּבֶשׂ, שֶׁיִּהְיֶה גַּם כֵּן זֵכֶר לְאֵילוֹ שֶׁל יִצְחָק. וְגַם יְרָקוֹת אוֹכְלִים אוֹתָן שֶׁיֵּשׁ לָהֶן בַּמְּדִינָה הַהוּא שֵׁם הַמּוֹרֶה לְטוֹבָה. כְּמוֹ זֵכֶר לְאֵילוֹ שֶׁל יִצְחָק. גַם אוֹכְלִים אוֹתָן הַיְרָקוֹת שֶׁיֵּשׁ לָהֶם בַּמְּדִינָה הַהִיא שֵׁם הַמּוֹרֶה לְטוֹבָה, כְּמוֹ בִּמְדִינָתֵנוּ מֶעהרֶען (גֶּזֶר), וְאוֹמְרִים יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁיִּרְבּוּ זְכֻיּוֹתֵינוּ. וְיֵשׁ נוֹהֲגִין גַּם כֵּן לְהַדֵּר לֶאֱכֹל דָּגִים, שֶׁיֵּשׁ רֶמֶז לִפְרוֹת וְלִרְבּוֹת כְּמוֹ הַדָגִים. וְאֵין לְבַשֵּׁל אוֹתָם בְּחֹמֶץ, כִּי אֵין אוֹכְלִים דְּבָרִים חֲמוּצִים אוֹ מְרִירִים בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה. וְאוֹכְלִין בָּשָׂר שָׁמֵן וְכָל מִינֵי מְתִיקָה. גַּם נוֹהֲגִין שֶׁלֹּא לֶאֱכֹל אֱגוֹזִים וְלוּזִים, כִּי אֱגוֹז בְּגִמַטְרִיָּא ח"ט, וְגַם מַרְבִּים כִּיחָה וְנִיעָה הַמְבַטְּלִים אֶת הַתְּפִלָּה (תקפג). וְיֵשׁ לִלְמֹד עַל הַשֻּׁלְחָן תּוֹרָה. וְנוֹהֲגִין קְצָת לִלְמֹד מִשְׁנָיוֹת מַסֶּכֶת רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה (חיי"א).
(9) At the evening meal it is customary to prepare symbolic dishes [as auspicious omens] for a good year. You dip the piece of challah of Hamotzi in honey, and after eating a kazayis of challah you should say: יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְפָנֶיךָ ה׳ אֱלֹּקַי וֵאלֹּקֵי אֲבוֹתַי שֶׁתְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה “May it be Your will Almighty, my G-d, and G-d of my fathers” etc. (Ibid 583:21) shanah tovah umesukah [May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year]. After this you should dip a piece of apple in honey, say the berachah, Borei peri ha'eitz, and eat it. Then you say again Yehi ratzon etc. It is customary to eat the head of an animal and say Yehi ratzon shenih'yeh lerosh [May it be Your will] that we will be heads (leaders). You should try to obtain the head of a sheep, which will also serve as a remembrance of the ram of Isaac. You should also eat vegetables the names of which, in the language of your country, allude to good things... such as in our country, carrots (mehren) [mehren means to increase] and you should say Yehi ratzon sheyirbu zechuyoseinu [May it be Your will that our merits increase.] Some people have the custom to eat an elaborate fish course, symbolizing the blessing of fertility like the fish. The fish should not be cooked in vinegar because we must not eat sour or bitter foods on Rosh Hashanah. You should eat choice meats and all kinds of sweets. It is also customary not to eat nuts and almonds, because the numerical value of אֶגוֹז egoz (nut) is 17, the same as חֵט cheit, which means sin. Also, nuts increase phlegm and mucus which interferes with praying. It is proper to study Torah during the meal. Some have the custom of studying the Mishnah, Maseches Rosh Hashanah.
Highlight the names of foods in the text and answer the questions below.
- Which foods are mentioned in this section of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh?
- What are some of the reasons for eating the foods?
- According to the Kitzur, which foods should be avoided on Rosh Hashanah? Why?
Celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Historical Records
Read the following passage and answer the question below:
Rosh Hashanah in Czechoslovakia as told by Henrich Zinger and recorded by Centropa.
"Before Rosh Hashanah the shofar played after the morning prayer for the whole month of Tishri and Elul at the synagogue. On the eve of the holiday Jews had to offer an apology to those they hurt even if the hurt was unintentional. On Rosh Hashanah my father put on a white shirt and went to the synagogue with my mother. It was mandatory to wear white clothes. When we grew up we also went to the synagogue with our parents. My father had a special prayer book for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. My mother cooked traditional Jewish food: chicken, chicken broth and gefilte fish. We ate apples dipping them in honey and my mother explained that we did this to express our hope for a year full of sweetness ahead."
- Which of the traditions that Mr. Zinger described does your family also do?
Wrapping it all up!
How does eating symbolic foods enhance your Rosh Hashana experience?
What is your favourite symbolic food? Why?