For the week ending 12 September 2015 / 28 Elul 5775

Mysterious Omens and our Forefathers

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
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If you were to ask the random man on the street what pictorial image he visualizes to symbolize the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, chances are he would reply “an apple dipped in honey”, or perhaps a ram’s (or fish’s) head, or a pomegranate. It is pretty widespread knowledge that these are traditional foods that contain important symbolisms on this High Holy Day. In fact, they date back almost two millennia!

The Gemara (Horiyot 12a and Kritut 6a) recounts that the Sage Abaye exhorted us to eat certain specific foods on Rosh Hashanah as symbolic omens (“simanim”) for the upcoming year. This practice is even codified as halacha in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 583:1). These foods include gourd, fenugreek, beets, leek, and dates. Based on his precedent, later authorities added the famous apple dipped in honey for a “sweet New Year”, a lamb’s head so that we “be as a head and not a tail”, pomegranate “to increase our merits like a pomegranate’s seeds”, as well as fish, which serves several symbolisms: to “be fruitful and multiply like fish”, “to increase our merits” like fish, and to arouse G-d’s ever-present Divine supervision.

But, the question begs to be asked: doesn’t Judaism frown upon, at best, the idea of superstitions, talismans, and omens? How can this be not only allowed, but actually encouraged as a part of the traditional ritual on none other than the High Holy Days?

Several authorities, including the famed Maharal M’Prague (Chiddushei Aggadot, Horiyot 12a and Be’er HaGolah, Be’er HaSheini s.v. b’perek gimmel) clue us in. The Ramban (Parshat Lech Lecha Ch. 12: 6; and in his introduction to Sefer Shemot), based on the Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Lech Lecha 9), expresses great interest in every detail related by the Torah, and introduces us to the fundamental concept of “Ma’aseh Avot Siman LaBanim”. This refers to the idea that the actions of our forefathers created a spiritual reality which was symbolic for their descendents. In other words, the challenges met by our great patriarchs transmitted to their children a unique form of “spiritual DNA”, whereby the potential was created for their descendants to emulate their deeds. This is why, he explains, the Torah records the stories of our forefathers in great detail. Showcasing their actions demonstrates that they serve as a conduit to actualize Divine decrees, in this case creating and enabling abilities in future generations.

So too, explains the Maharal, this is the intention of these seemingly mysterious omens on Rosh Hashanah night. Perish the thought that they are meant to be lucky charms; far from it. The purpose of these simanim is to perform a physical action, small as it may be, to function as a means to channel a Heavenly decree. Therefore, we are utilizing these “omens”, with their specific characteristics, as a unique but positive way to channel Divine blessing for the New Year.

May we all merit channeling the blessing to be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet New Year!

  • Author’s note: Much of the above is based on Rabbi Eliezer Brodt’s article in Kovetz Datz”ah (vol. 100, pp. 4 -5).

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