It is customary to eat symbolic foods on Rosh Hashana, these symbols represent the individual’s requests for a better life for one self, for one’s family, etc… How did the custom begin? The Talmud in Tractate Krisus states on page 6a: “Now that you say that an omen means something, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets and dates…” As a result, we partake of these and other foods, all representing good things and the individual’s hopes for more and better. The foods mentioned are of types that grow fast and/or are very sweet.
Why do we eat them on Rosh Hashana, specifically, as opposed to any other time of the year? When we ask the Almighty to grant us something, just as when we would ask a king to give us something, we must invoke some merit or reason why we feel we deserve it. Therefore, these foods serve as a reminder that we must do tshuvah – repentance. Rosh Hashana being the time when the Almighty looks at the past year’s deeds and when we ask to be inscribed in the Book of Life, it is – of course – a time of self examination and repentance. Thus, these foods serve to remind us of our pressing need to repent, to resolve to be better and stronger Jews for the coming New Year.
These symbols blend in with the spirit of Rosh Hashana, as as Rabbi Yehuda Prero says on torah.org:
…If one looks over the prayers on Rosh HaShana, one will find that the basic theme is one of proclaiming the kingship and greatness of Hashem. Although Rosh HaShana is the day on which we are being judged, we do not make requests for sustenance, health, long life, etc.. We instead demonstrate how we have accepted Hashem as our king, and that we will listen to Him and follow His dictates.
By asking Hashem for our needs we obviously acknowledge Him as our King, upon whom we depend as the source of life, as the source of everything on this plane (and every other) plane of existence. The omens are a way of covertly asking the Boreh Olam – Creator of the Universe for our needs without being too blatant about it.
Immediately preceding each of these foods we say a “Yehi ratzon – may it be Your will…” Each food, whether through a pun on its name, or through its very nature, alludes to our request.
The Yehi ratzons are as follows:
“Yehi Ratzon Milfanecha, Ad-noi El-heinu Vei’l-hai Avosainu…”
“May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers…”
For fenugreek (most Ashkenazim use carrots, in yiddish Mehren – which can also mean “to increase,”):
“…that our merits increase.”
For leek or cabbage:
“…that our enemies be decimated.”
“…that our adversaries disappear”
“…that our enemies be consumed.”
“…Sheyikora gzar dinainu vyikaru lefanecha zechuyosainu.”
“…that the decree of our sentance be torn up and may our merits be proclaimed before you.”
For the apple in the honey:
“…shetichadesh aleinu shana tova umtuka.”
“…that you renew us for a good and sweet year.”
“…shenirbeh zechuyos kerimon”
“…that our merits increase like (the seeds of) a pomegranate.”
“…Shenifreh vnirbeh kedagim.”
“…that we be fruitful and multiply like fish.”
For the head of a fish or sheep:
“…Shenihiyeh lerosh velo lezanav.”
“…that we be as the head and not as the tail.”
There are also many personal symbols that some people add, for example among some of my relatives it’s long been customary to have a lettuce leave, half a raisin and a piece of celery stalk… What is the pun and its meaning? “May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, to let us have a raise in salary.”
Do you have any personal or family symbols you add on Rosh Hashana? Please share them with the rest of us, we’d like to see them!
May this be the year, when everyone of us is granted all of his/her needs, as we acknowledge Hashem’s kingship!