There is a widespread custom to eat certain several types of food on Rosh Hashanah to signify a good and sweet year. This article will examine the different types of foods consumed today and provide an historical overview of this custom.
Chapter 8 of Nehemiah describes a gathering of the Israelites in Jerusalem (ibid. 1) on Rosh Hashanah (ibid. 2), organized by Ezra, to inspire the people to return to the ways of Hashem through a public reading of the Torah (ibid. 8). The people were moved by the words of the Torah and feeling their inadequacies began to weep (ibid. 9). Both Nehemiah and Ezra advised the people not to cry because, “This day is holy to Hashem”, meaning that their sincere return to Hashem would result in a favourable judgment for this year (ibid. 9). Then Nehemiah instructed the people (ibid. 10), “Go, eat fat foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our L-rd, and do not be sad, for the joy of the Hashem is your strength.” Based on this verse, the Rema (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 583:1) stipulates that on Rosh Hashanah one should eat good cuts of meat (literally fatty meat) and sweet delicacies. This custom was codified earlier by the Mordechai, 13th century halachic authority in Germany in his commentary on Tractate Yoma Chapter 723).
The earliest historical source for food omens is the Talmud (Horayot 12a and Keritut 6a) where Abaye says,” Since an omen is significant matter, a person should always be accustomed toseeing (or eating) squash, fenugreek (some translate as black eyed peas), leeks, beets (or spinach), and dates on Rosh Hashanah.” These omens have some or all of the following factors:
- Grow quickly.
- Grow tall.
- Are sweet.
- Hebrew word connotes a prayer.
Permissibility of Omen
The reader may ask, “Is one permitted to rely on omens or is this reliance an infringement of the biblical prohibition of divination (Leviticus 19:26)?” The Hameiri, 13th century Talmudic commentator and philosopher, answer these omens are permitted because:
- These omens are not an end in themselves. Rather these omens should inspire a person to anticipate a good year by returning to Hashem through the study of the Torah and performing the mitzvoth.
- Each omen is accompanied by a prayer focusing on the person’s intentions on Hashem and not on the omens themselves.
Eating or Seeing
The Talmudic commentators note the difference between the two sources (i.e. seeing – former source and eating – latter source) and conclude that consuming the food has more impact than merely seeing it. However if someone is allergic to any of these food items or does not like their taste, he may hold them in his hand and look at them. The commentators also debate whether one must think of the word association (e.g. Rashi on Horayot 12a) or actually pronounce them (e.g. Ran quoting the custom of Rav Hai Gaon (Rif Rosh Hashanah 12b)).
The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 583:1) records the prayer for each item based upon a word association as follows. The prayer begins, “May it be Your (divine) will that our …” The following table lists the food items in English and Aramaic (language of the Talmud) and the associated prayer in English and Hebrew (language of the prayer book).
|Enemies be cut down
|Adversaries be removed
|Enemies be finished
|(Harsh) decree be torn up Merits be proclaimed
|דיננו גזר יקרע זכיותינו לפניך יקראו
The squash has two clauses for its prayer because the word קרא could be read with the letter aleph א, meaning proclaim, or through allusion with the letter ayin ע to obtain the word קרע which means to tear up. Perhaps this is the reason that the Shulchan Aruch places the squash at the end of the list to summarize all these prayers with a double message. By contrast the Talmud places squash at the beginning, perhaps because squash is a main dish and the Talmud did not mention these prayers.
Although the Talmud specified these 5 food items one is permitted to add to this list and make a prayer for each additional item even if the word association applies in a local language and not necessarily in Hebrew (Magen Avraham 17th century, leading commentator on Shulchan Aruch 583).
Apple with Honey
The Rema (ibid.) cites the Ashkenazi custom of eating an apple dipped in honey and saying, “We should experience a sweet year.”The reason Rabbi Joseph Caro (author of the Shulchan Aruch) did not mention this custom because apples do not grow well in the Middle East. They require a cold winter and moderate temperatures in the summer (i.e. below 32 degrees Celsius) with medium to high humidity. These climatic conditions are not found in the Middle East.
The Rema (ibid.) adds pomegranates to this list with the prayer, “May our merits increase like (the many seeds of a) pomegranate. The Abudraham, 14th century commentator on synagogue liturgy, mentions this custom in his laws of Rosh Hashanah.
Head of Ram
The Shulchan Aruch (ibid. 583:2) records the custom of eating the head of a sheep, or preferably a ram, and saying, “May it be Your (Divine) will … that we be at the head (of life) and not at its tail.” A ram is preferred because it reminds us of the ram offered in place of Isaac at Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:13). For convenience some use the head of fish instead.
The Magen Avraham (ibid 583) adds fish to the list of food omens, with the prayer that we be fruitful and multiply like fish. The Abudraham mention this custom as well.
Summary of Food Items
The following table summarizes the 4 additional food items listed above and provides the source, where applicable in the Tur Shulchan Aruch, written in the 14th century, or the Shulchan Aruch written in the 16th century.
|Tur Shulchan Aruch
|Apple with Honey
|Head of Ram
|583 – Magen Avraham
Order of Blessings
Before the 19th century, it was not common for most people to eat both apples and dates on Rosh Hashanah because apples grow in the northern countries and dates grow in the Middle East and along the Mediterranean coast. With increased transportation and trade, especially in the 20th century, it became possible to obtain both food items for Rosh Hashanah. When making a blessing on two fruits it is preferable to make this blessing on a fruit in which the land of Israel is praised, even if the fruit did not grow in Israel (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 211:1). Deuteronomy 8:8 lists these fruit as: olives, dates, grapes, figs, and pomegranates. Hence it is preferable to make the blessing on the date and that blessing would also cover the apple. Those who prefer to make the blessing on the apple should bring the date to the table after eating some of the apple. Hence the date was not present at the time of the blessing on the apple avoiding this conflict in priorities of blessings on fruit.
The Magen Avraham rules (ibid. 583:2) that one should make the blessing on the fruit, consume some of the fruit, and then say the prayer to avoid an interruption between the blessing and eating. However some consider the prayer an integral part of the blessing and therefore say the prayer before eating the fruit (Shulchan Aruch HaRav 583:3 with footnotes 15 in Hebrew and 17 in English).
There is a debate within the halachic codifiers as to how often this ceremony should be performed since Abaye did not specify the actual times for this ceremony. In addition even the Shulchan Aruch did not specify the times. The expression of the Talmud, “should be accustomed” could mean from year to year (i.e. once per year) or several times on Rosh Hashanah. Therefore some observe this ceremony only at the 1st night meal of Rosh Hashanah, some do both nights, and others even during the day time meals.
It is interesting to note that Maimonides does not mention any of these food omens in his code of Mishneh Torah. Perhaps due to his direct and rationale approach to Torah, he did not consider it necessary to cite these customs leaving this matter to the discretion of the individual even though the Talmud did not debate Abaye’s statement. Nevertheless since the Shulchan Aruch codifies these customs the vast majority of Orthodox Jews follows them.
This article examined different customs of eating foods on Rosh Hashanah based on scripture and the Talmud. The omens are not an end in themselves; rather they are a reminder to improve one’s ways on this Day of Judgment. However one should not be overwhelmed by this judgment as Nehemiah (8:10) advises, “Do not be sad, for the joy of the Hashem is your strength.”