Food for Rosh Hashana Thought

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An odd Rosh Hashana custom, duly recorded in the Talmud and halachic codes, is the lavishing of puns on holiday foods.

Most Jews know that on the first night of the new Jewish year, it is customary to eat a piece of apple dipped in honey, to symbolize our hope for a sweet year. Less known is the Rosh Hashana night custom of eating foods whose names augur well for the future. Though the Talmud’s examples are, of course, in Hebrew or Aramaic, at least one halachic commentary directs us to find pun-foods in whatever language we may speak.

“Help us pare away our sins” before consuming a pear might thus be an appropriate example. Or an entreaty that G-d be our advocate, before eating a piece of avocado. “Lettuce have a wonderful year” might be pushing it a bit, but maybe not. One respected rabbi once smilingly suggested partaking of a raisin and stalk of celery after expressing the hope for a “raise in salary.”

Such exercises might seem a bit out of place on the Jewish holy “day of judgment.” But that is only because we regard the custom simplistically, as some quaint superstition. In truth, though, it is precisely Rosh Hashana’s austere gravity that lies at the custom’s source.

There are other telling Jewish customs regarding Rosh Hashana, like the recommendation that the Jewish new year be carefully utilized to the fullest for prayer, Torah-study and good deeds, that not a moment of its time be squandered. Mitzvot and good conduct, of course, are always “in season,” but they seem to have particular power on Rosh Hashana. Similarly, Jewish sources caution against expressing anger on Rosh Hashana. The Jewish new year days are to reflect only the highest Jewish ideals.

The 16th century Jewish luminary Rabbi Yehudah Loewy, known as the Maharal, stresses the crucial nature of beginnings. He explains that the trajectory of a projectile — or, we might similarly note, the outcome of a mathematical computation — can be affected to an often astounding degree by a very small change at the start of the process. A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow — or an error of a single digit at the first step of a long calculation — can yield a surprisingly large difference in the end. Modern scientific terminology has given the concept both the unwieldy name “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” and the playful one “the butterfly effect,” an allusion to the influence the flapping of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world could presumably have on next week’s local weather.

Rosh Hashana is thus much more than the start of the Jewish year. It is the day from which the balance of the year unfolds, a time of “initial conditions” exquisitely sensitive to our actions.

Perhaps the Rosh Hashana puns, too, reflect that sensitivity. After all, word-play is not suggested for any other day of the year.

Maybe by imbuing even things as seemingly inconsequential as our choice of foods with meaning on Rosh Hashana, we symbolically affirm the idea that beginnings have unusual potential. That there are times when the import of each of our actions is magnified. By seizing even the most wispy opportunities to try to bestow blessing on the Jewish new year aborning, we declare our determination to start the year as right as we possibly can.

While we are not explicitly informed by the Talmud about whether the puns actually have any direct effect on our year, they unarguably impress upon us the extraordinary degree to which our actions at the start of a Jewish year affect how we will live its balance.

And that is an invaluable lesson, one that should lead us to begin the new Jewish year working to make ourselves better Jews in our relations both to one another and to our Creator.

May all we Jews merit a Rosh Hashana with only sweetness and joy, devoid of sadness and anger. And may we seize every chance to make the start of 5768 as perfect as we can — ushering in a year in which the Jewish People’s collective life and all of our individual lives take a distinct and substantial turnip for the better.

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19 Responses

  1. chaim wolfson says:

    Thanbo,
    I heard the raisin and celery part from Rav Moshe Heineman of Baltimore (though he didn’t mention anything about using half a raisin).

    I heard something in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe that puts the custom of “simanim” in perspective: There is a custom to avoid eating nuts on Rosh Hashanah, because the “gematria” (numerical value) of the Hebrew “egoz” (nut) is the same as “chet” (sin). The problem is, the Kotzker said, that many of the people who follow this custom forget that “chet” is also the “gematria” of “chet”!

  2. thanbo says:

    a salad: lettuce, half a raisin, celery (due to Leizer Gillig)

  3. Asher Samuels says:

    May the Mountain Dew fall over the Land of Israel.

  4. Rudy Wagner says:

    Chaim,

    off course I meant a chocolate replica of a tyre.

    Shana Tovah

  5. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    While Rabin was Prime Minister we ate mangoes, saying, “May it be Your will that we will soon see the man go.” It worked so well that we said it on Sharon as well. On Olmert I don’t know if I’ll bother. Too many men have to go already.

  6. Chaim Wolfson says:

    Rudy, your suggestion is a good idea if all you have to do is see the “simanim”. I wouldn’t recomend it, though, according to those who say you have to eat them (cf. “Kerisos” 6a and “Horyos” 12a, and “Tur” and “Shulchan Aruch” O.C. #583).

    mnuez, I assume the franks and goulash are for the first night of Yom Tov, and the pizza is for the second night.

    JO, how do you eat Woodbourne? Or a cantor, for that matter? [WRT everything else I am in complete agreement with you.]

  7. Jewish Observer says:

    May you cry out doubly in joy, never remoan

  8. Jewish Observer says:

    May it be that your cantor can’t err

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    may your ribeye make no misteak

  10. Phil says:

    Asher V. Finn, if you slur the name just right, sounds like Avi Shafran. Nice catch, Eli. Well Rabbi Shafran, you might wish to come up with a new alias. How about Yonah Sonro Zenbloom? (smirk)

  11. Rudy Wagner says:

    You should place a TYRE on the Rosh Ha-Shana table and say:

    “Have a GOOD-YEAR”…

  12. mnuez says:

    May we be frank with each other,
    may we have pizza in the Holy Land
    and may everything goulash be kept away from us.

    Furthermore.

    May our enemies powers dim sum,
    May we rarely say Do!-Nuts!,
    And may everyone like Juice.

    And –

    May we magically have the powers to devour every sort of delectable in sight without gaining any weight or becoming gashmieshe beings without as true an appreciation of spiritual matters as we, and our Creator, would prefer. (And everything else good) Amen.

    A gut gebentched,

    mnuez
    http://www.mnuez.blogspot.com

  13. eli says:

    I’m confused. Is this article the same as the one by the same name by Asher V. Finn? See home.aol.com/lazera/AmEchad/roshhashana.html

  14. Moshe Schorr says:

    When drinking Cola we may ask that G-d hear the “kol” of our prayer.
    Although some refrain from eating horseradish, one who does eat it may
    say “may we be _chozer_ bitshuva” (In hebrew, it’s called “chazeret”.

    Eating ‘tchina’, a spread made from poppy seeds, may be accompanied by asking that G-d hear our “tchinos”.

    Shana tova to all.

  15. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Carrots: May good things be created for us.

    Beets: May our enemies beat it.

    Peas: May we have true peace.

  16. Jewish Observer says:

    may we watch the Woodbourne in our hearths

  17. Jewish Observer says:

    My our mezuman bring me much of the same

  18. Jewish Observer says:

    May my new Bors bring me mazal at the bourse

  19. Jewish Observer says:

    May the reign of gashmius be replaced by a gust of ruchnius