One of the most distinctive practices of Rosh Hashanah is eating the Simanim, special foods at the first Rosh Hashanah meal. The Gemara (Krissus 6a) writes, “Symbolism has significance,” and because of this one should adorn the Rosh Hashanah meal with special foods.
The Gemara does not specify when the Simanim should appear on the Rosh Hashanah table, and this matter is discussed by some authorities (see the discussion in Shut Mishneh Halachos Vol. 8, no. 80; Toras Hamoadim, Yamim Noraim 4:1). Moreover, according to one version of the Gemara the custom is that the Simanim foods must be seen, rather than eaten (see Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 583).
However, the prevalent custom is to eat the Simanim foods (as ruled by the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 583:1. If for some reason they cannot be eaten, such as for health reasons or due to worm infestation, they should still be placed on the table. The custom is to do so specifically on the night meals of Rosh Hashanah. Some partake of them on the first night alone (Bnei Yissachar, Tishrei 2, 11; Eshel Avraham 583; Piskei Teshuvos 583:6), while others have the Simanim on both nights (Elyah Rabba 583:1; Shaarei Teshuvah 583:1; among others).
We have already discussed the laws of berachos relating to the eating of the Simanim—what is the correct order for eating them, based on the laws of precedence for different berachos. In the present article we will discuss the Simanim themselves, and their laws and customs.
Which Simanim should be at the Rosh Hashanah table? When should they be eaten? Are berachos recited on all the Simanim, even those whose beracha is “ha’adama”? Is the customary prayer over the Simanim recited with the Name of Hashem, or without it? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Gemara (Krisos 6a; Horios 12a) lists only five Simanim, four vegetables and dates. These are (in the order given by the Shulchan Aruch):
- Rubiya (tilsan)—see below
- Karti (leek)
- Silka (beets)
- Tamri (dates)
- Kara (squash)
The significance of the different Simanim is their name. Thus, karti recalls the word kareis, and is eaten as a sign that our enemies should be cut off. The Kaf Hachaim (583:11) explains that the main prayer refers to our enemies in Heaven, the prosecuting angels, about whom we pray that they should not prosecute us on the Day of Judgment. Silka recalls the scattering of our enemies, and tamri to their demise. Kara is eaten as an omen that evil decrees should be torn apart (kore’a), and that our merits should be read before Hashem (yikra).
Rubiya literally means “many,” and there is some dispute concerning its identity. Some write that it refers to carrots (Shulchan Aruch Harav 129:9). Others explain that it refers to a red herb substance (see Birkei Yosef 583:3). But most identity it as a small red bean (the cowpea legume; see Birkei Yosef 583:2; Kaf Hachaim 583:10). The latter is the common custom. (The Gemara and Shulchan Aruch mention that rubya is tilsan. In the Gemara tilsan is fenugreek [see Rashi, Nidda 19a], while in modern Hebrew it refers to clover.)
The rubya Siman is eaten as an omen to “many,” symbolizing a prayer that our merits should be multiplied. In Europe, carrots were eaten for a similar reason, since their Yiddish name is mehren, also meaning many (see Mishnah Berurah 583:1, who notes that foods denoting “many” should be eaten depending on the local language).
In Hebrew, the word for carrot is gezer, and this continues to be eaten, receiving positive symbolism as a prayer that Hashem should decree positive edits upon us (gezeiros).
Additional Simanim, not mentioned by the Gemara and Shulchan Aruch, include:
- Fish (Shulchan Aruch Harav 583:2, symbolizing that we should be plentiful as fish. Note that the Rashbatz refrains from this Siman, because of the negative connotation of the word dag (similar to the Hebrew da’aga, worry), while the Maharashal refrained from eating fish on Rosh Hashanah to diminish physical pleasure (He was particularly fond of fish as we see in Hilchos Shabbos so he may not mean it as a general rule.) and recall the judgment of the day—see Magen Avraham 591; Birkei Yosef 583:5)
- Apple in honey (Rema 583:1, citing the Tur). This is everybody’s favorite, indicating our prayer for a sweet new year.
- Pomegranate (Rema 583:1, indicating a multitude of merits. The Ben Ish Chai, Nitzavim 5, writes that one should not eat pomegranates and other “sour” fruits. Of course, this inhibition does not apply where sweet pomegranates are available.
- Head of sheep or ram (Shulchan Aruch 583:2). This recalls the ram of Yitzchak, and also symbolizes our prayer to be a head and not the tail. The Mishnah Berurah 583:7 writes that in the absence of the sheep’s head, a different animal or fowl can be taken, while today the common custom for Ashkenazim is to use the head of a fish.
There are other Simanim that different communities and customs have adopted, and of course each person should follow his own family custom.
Beracha or Not?
The prevalent custom is to eat the Simanim foods after making Hamotzi on the bread, before beginning the rest of the meal (see Tur, Orach Chayim 583; Magen Avraham 583:1; Taz 583:2). It seems natural to eat the foods as part of the meal, and in addition eating the Simanim before the bread could create complications concerning reciting after-berachos on the different foods (see Toras Hamoadim, Yamim Noraim 4:2).
However, eating the Simanim after the bread raises other beracha issues, most specifically the question of whether to recite a beracha before eating the different foods.
Concerning reciting a ha’eitz on fruit, Poskim note that one must recite the beracha before eating the dates (the custom of Chabad and some other Ashkenazim is to eat the apple first, and to recite the ha’eitz on the apple—though this does not follow the regular halachic order of berachos, according to which dates precede apples). While most authorities simply mention that the beracha is recited, the Taz (593:2, citing Maharil) explains that the Simanim are considered to be foods that are not an inherent part of the meal, which is why they require their own beracha even though they are not eaten as dessert.
While fruit eaten as an appetizer is part of the meal, and one does not recite a beracha over its consumption (see Mishnah Berurah 174:39; Vezos Haberacha p. 77), the Simanim are not eaten as appetizers, but rather as part of the Rosh Hashanah ritual. As such, they are not actually part of the meal, and one therefore recites a beracha over them (see discussion in Shut Divrei Yatziv, Orach Chaim 252).
The logic above applies even to Simanim that are vegetables. They, too, are eaten as a ritual and not as part of the meal, so that a beracha will apparently be mandated. However, the Mishnah Berurah and other commentaries to the Shulchan Aruch note the matter of the beracha specifically concerning the ha’eitz over the apple (or the dates), leaving something of a doubt concerning the ha’adama. Vegetables and vegetable dishes are, after all, generally considered a part of the meal to a far greater degree than fruit.
The common practice is to recite the ha’adama blessing over one of the vegetable Simanim, though some authorities write that this should not be done. Concerning kara, Shut Teshuvos Vehanhagos of Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Vol. 2, no. 269, disputing the ruling of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach) writes that this constitutes a beracha in vain, since it is simply part of the meal, and its status as a Siman does not make a difference. It is possible that Rav Sternbuch’s argument applies specifically to kara (squash), and does not apply to those foods that are more rarely on the table.
In fact, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo, Moadim Vol. 2, 1:18) suggested that one should recited the ha’adama beracha on the least commonly eaten of the vegetable Simanim, which is perhaps the rubya or the kara. Some have suggested eating a ha’adama fruit (watermelon; banana; papaya) first, to get out of any doubt (Piskei Teshuvos 583:13, citing from Rav Diblitski), though this is surely not the common custom.
The Gemara that mentions the Simanim does not note any prayer to be said upon eating or seeing them. However, a number of early and later authorities record the custom of reciting a special prayer upon eating each of the foods (see Mordechai, Horiyos 12a, citing Rav Hai Gaon, as cited in the Beis Yosef 583; Abudarham, p. 266; Kol Bo 64, cited by Kaf Hachaim)
The Shulchan Aruch (583:1) thus rules that a prayer is recited, beginning with the words yehi ratzom, “may it be Your will.” The Mishnah Berurah (583:2, citing Elyah Rabbah in the name of the Shela) adds that one should repent one’s sins and have deep intent upon reciting the prayers.
Is the Name of Hashem mentioned as part of the yehi ratzon prayer? The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (129:9) rules that the prayer is recited without the Name of Hashem, but other authorities (see Siddur Yaavetz; Beis Yosef; Kol Bo; Mishnah Berurah 583:2; among others) note that the prayer includes the words “yehi ratzon milfanecha Hashem Elokeinu Ve’elokei Avoseinu.” The common custom is accordingly to recite the prayer with the Name of Hashem.
For foods over which a ha’eitz or ha’adama is recited, the yehi ratzon prayers are recited after a small part of the food is eaten. For foods that require no prior beracha, the yehi ratzon is recited prior to eating the food.
Often, eating the pomegranate (an uncommon food during the year) will warrant the shehecheyanu blessing. In this case, the fruit should be left off the table during Kiddush, to ensure that the shehecheyahu blessing of Kiddush will not apply to the fruit. After this, shehecheyahu is recited as usual over the fruit.
This is in contrast to the second day of Rosh Hashanah, when many designate a special fruit to avoid any doubt over the shehecheyahu beracha made at Kiddush (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 600:2). This fruit should specifically be at the table, so that the shehecheyahu of Kiddush should apply to it.
We wish all readers a kesiva vechasima tova, for a healthy and prosperous year in gashmius and in ruchniyus.