Eating Our Wishes: Symbolic Food of the High Holy Days


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.

On the first night of Rosh HaShanah, 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, Eternal God, Source of blessing, Creator of 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.

Rav Menachem Meiri

In order to arouse themselves to focus on God and to place the awe of Him in their consciousness without sinning, they developed the practice of placing gourd, fenugreek, leek, cabbage, and dates on the table. This was done corresponding to that which was cited in Tractate Horiyot and Tractate Kritot: “Now that you have determined that omens are significant, at the beginning of every year every person should …”

And in order not to mistake this practice for sorcery, God forbid, they would pronounce upon these things words that highlighted forgiveness and awaken feelings of repentance. When they said that an omen is significant they meant that it could affect a person just by him being aware of the omens placed before him, even without explicitly reciting prayers over them. That is why at first they would simply look at them during the meal. However, because the Sages were concerned that people might become preoccupied with satisfying their appetites and become distracted from focusing on the spiritual importance of the day and the awe of judgment, therefore they began to recite special prayers over these foods in order to raise people’s consciousness.

They began to say on the gourd that our merits should be mentioned, on the fenugreek that our merits should increase, on the leek that our enemies should be cut off … and also on the beet (silka) that our sins should be removed (yistalku), and on dates that our sins should be removed. The intent is, as we explained, that since engaging in eating makes one forget the meaning of the day, therefore one should see these foods and gain awareness by virtue of them. In that way the omens would strengthen a person’s consciousness and be inspirational.

The meaning behind the cutting off of our enemies is that it refers to foreign ideologies and heresies that cause people to transgress, for those are the enemies that cause the purest form of hatred. We are not praying at this point for the downfall of our enemies; we have enough to pray for on our own account.

אמר רבי אלעזר בשעה שהקדימו ישראל נעשה לנשמע יצתה בת קול ואמרה להן מי גלה לבני רז זה שמלאכי השרת משתמשין בו דכתיב ברכו ה׳ מלאכיו גברי כח עשי דברו לשמע בקול דברו ברישא עשי והדר לשמע אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא מאי דכתיב כתפוח בעצי היער וגו׳ למה נמשלו ישראל לתפוח לומר לך מה תפוח זה פריו קודם לעליו אף ישראל הקדימו נעשה לנשמע
Rabbi Elazar said: When the Jewish people accorded precedence to the declaration “We will do” over “We will hear,” a Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Who revealed to my children this secret that the ministering angels use? As it is written: “Bless the Lord, you angels of His, you mighty in strength, that fulfill His word, hearkening unto the voice of His word” (Psalms 103:20). At first, the angels fulfill His word, and then afterward they hearken. Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. Under its shadow I delighted to sit and its fruit was sweet to my taste” (Song of Songs 2:3)? Why were the Jewish people likened to an apple tree? It is to tell you that just as this apple tree, its fruit grows before its leaves, so too, the Jewish people accorded precedence to “We will do” over “We will hear.”

Talmud Bechoros 7B

Honey is kosher since it is not an actual secretion of the bee; the bee functions only as a carrier and facilitator.

ראש כבש ודג

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב. וּנְתָנְךָ יְהוָה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב וְהָיִיתָ רַק לְמַעְלָה וְלֹא תִהְיֶה לְמָטָּה כִּי תִשְׁמַע אֶל מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לִשְׁמֹר וְלַעֲשׂוֹת. (דברים כח, יג)

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהַכֹּל נִהְיָה בִּדְבָרוֹ

Head of a sheep or fish

May it be thy will lord our god and god of our fathers that we will be at the head and not the tail. "And the LORD will make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if thou shalt hearken unto the commandments of the LORD thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them;" (Devarim 28:13)

Blessed are you lord our god, king of the universe, by whose utterances everything is created.

(ה) (ה) שנה מתוקה - וע"כ יש נמנעים לבשל בר"ה מיני חומץ בארש"ט וכדומה וע"כ האוכלים דגים לסימנא שיפרו וירבו כדגים אין מבשלין אותן בחומץ. והנה כל אלו הענינים עושין הכל לסימן טוב ולכן פשיטא שיזהר מאד שלא יכעוס בימים האלו מלבד גודל האיסור כדי שיהיה לסימן טוב רק יהיה שמח לבו ובטוח בד' עם התשובה ומעש"ט:

"A sweet year" - because of this, there are those who refrain on Rosh Hashanah from cooking sour foods, such as Borscht. Therefore, those who eat fish as a sign of fertility should not cook them in vinegar. All these symbols are done as a sign of goodness, so obviously one should be very careful not to be angry on this day (apart from it never being permitted!) so that the day is full of goodness. Just fill the heart with happiness, and trusting God, and repentance, and good deeds.

וּכְשֶׁהוּא אוֹכֵל וְשׁוֹתֶה חַיָּב לְהַאֲכִיל לַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה עִם שְׁאָר הָעֲנִיִּים הָאֻמְלָלִים. אֲבָל מִי שֶׁנּוֹעֵל דַּלְתוֹת חֲצֵרוֹ וְאוֹכֵל וְשׁוֹתֶה הוּא וּבָנָיו וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֵינוֹ מַאֲכִיל וּמַשְׁקֶה לַעֲנִיִּים וּלְמָרֵי נֶפֶשׁ אֵין זוֹ שִׂמְחַת מִצְוָה אֶלָּא שִׂמְחַת כְּרֵסוֹ. וְעַל אֵלּוּ נֶאֱמַר (הושע ט ד) "זִבְחֵיהֶם כְּלֶחֶם אוֹנִים לָהֶם כָּל אֹכְלָיו יִטַּמָּאוּ כִּי לַחְמָם לְנַפְשָׁם". וְשִׂמְחָה כָּזוֹ קָלוֹן הִיא לָהֶם שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (מלאכי ב ג) "וְזֵרִיתִי פֶרֶשׁ עַל פְּנֵיכֶם פֶּרֶשׁ חַגֵּיכֶם":

While eating and drinking, one must feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and other poor unfortunates. Anyone, however, who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks along with his wife and children, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and the desperate, does not observe a religious celebration but indulges in the celebration of his stomach... this kind of happiness is a curse, as it says "I will put your seed under a ban, and I will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festival sacrifices".

(א) מַה שֶּׁנּוֹהֲגִים לַעֲשׂוֹת כַּפָּרָה בְּעֶרֶב יוֹם כִּפּוּרִים לִשְׁחֹט תַּרְנְגוֹל עַל כָּל בֵּן זָכָר וְלוֹמַר עָלָיו פְּסוּקִים, יֵשׁ לִמְנֹעַ הַמִּנְהָג. הַגָּה: וְיֵשׁ מֵהַגְּאוֹנִים שֶׁכָּתְבוּ מִנְהָג זֶה, וְכֵן כָּתְבוּ אוֹתוֹ רַבִּים מִן הָאַחֲרוֹנִים, וְכֵן נוֹהֲגִין בְּכָל מְדִינוֹת אֵלּוּ וְאֵין לְשַׁנּוֹת, כִּי הוּא מִנְהַג וָתִיקִין. וְנוֹהֲגִין לִקַּח תַּרְנְגוֹל זָכָר לְזָכָר, וְלִנְקֵבָה לוֹקְחִין תַּרְנְגֹלֶת (בֵּית יוֹסֵף בְּשֵׁם תַּשְׁבֵּ''ץ), וְלוֹקְחִין לִמְעֻבֶּרֶת ב' תַּרְנְגוֹלִים אוּלַי תֵּלֵד זָכָר

(1) That which [people] are accustomed to perform kapparah before Yom Kippur by slaughtering a rooster on each male and to say verses over it, you should prevent the custom. Ramah: And there are those from the Geonim that write about this custom, and similarly it is written from many Achronim [Rishonim], and so is the custom in all these countries [Ashkenaz] - and you shouldn't change, for it is an ancient custom. And we are accustomed for a man to take a rooster and for a woman to take a hen, and for a pregnant woman to take both a rooster and a hen.

וכי בתשעה מתענין והלא בעשרה מתענין אלא לומר לך כל האוכל ושותה בתשיעי מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו מתענה תשיעי ועשירי.
The Gemara wonders: And does one fast on the ninth of Tishrei? Doesn’t one fast on the tenth of Tishrei, as the Torah says at the beginning of that portion: “However, on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement; there shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall afflict your souls” (Leviticus 23:27)? Rather, this verse comes to tell you: One who eats and drinks on the ninth day of Tishrei in preparation for the fast the next day, the verse ascribes him credit as if he fasted on both the ninth and the tenth of Tishrei. Ḥiyya bar Rav of Difti cited this verse to Rav Beivai bar Abaye to teach him that Yom Kippur eve is dedicated to eating and drinking, not to completing the Torah portions one may have missed throughout the year.