Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Rosh Hashanah 5767/ September 23-24, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Nuts on Rosh Hashanah

 

 Attny. Mordechai Manowitz

 

Bne Brak

 

In his glosses on Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim par.583.2, Rema notes: “Some people take care not to eat nuts, since the gematria for egoz (Heb. “nut”) is het, or sin; moreover, nuts cause a lot of phlegm and mucus and spoil one’s prayers (Maharil).”

As we shall explain below, the two reasons for this custom mentioned by Rema are rather flimsy, so much so that it is hard to suppose that they are indeed the reason and source of this custom.  It seems more likely that after the custom had become widespread these two explanations were found in order to reinforce the practice and give it justification.

Nuts and Sin

The first explanation, that egoz (including the kolel) [1] in gematria has the same value as the word het (=sin), is problematic since the value of egoz also equals the value of the word tov (=good) without having to include the total number of words; hence this is a preferable gematria and thus the symbolism of nuts is more towards “good” than “sin.”

Ba’al ha-Levush mentions this custom, phrasing his explanation somewhat differently: [2]

Some people take care not to eat nuts because they cause a lot of phlegm and mucus and cause one’s prayers to be spoiled, and the indication that this is so is that the gematria of egoz equals het.   In other words, one should not eat sins on Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we are judged for our sins.

It follows from his remark that the gematria of egoz is not the reason for the custom of prohibiting eating nuts, rather it is a sign alluding to the custom.

The Rema, whom we cited above, did not share this view insofar as he cited the gematria of egoz as the first reason, as an explanation standing independently on its own, and then added a second reason:  “moreover, nuts cause a lot of phlegm and mucus…”

Magen Avraham went even further, asserting that the explanations cited by Rema have practical implications.  According to the reason based on gematria, only those nuts that go by the name of egoz should be forbidden, whereas smaller nuts that go by a different name – luz (=filberts) – should be permitted; but according to the explanation that they cause a lot of phlegm and mucus, all sorts of nuts should be prohibited on Rosh Hashanah, no matter what their name.  It follows from these remarks that each of the explanations individually sufficed to establish the custom of not eating nuts on Rosh Hashanah.

Also the second explanation mentioned by Rema, “nuts cause a lot of phlegm and mucus,” is hard to accept as the source of the custom, since the prayers said throughout the year are no less important than the prayers recited on Rosh Hashanah; they, too, include recitation of the Shema as ordained by the Torah, and recitation of the Shemoneh-esreh as ordained by the Rabbis, so why do we not abstain from eating nuts, “which spoil one’s prayers,” all year round? [3]

Nuts in the Evening

Furthermore, concerning the custom of not eating nuts on Rosh Hashanah, no distinction is drawn between those who have already said their prayers and those who have not prayed.  Would eating nuts in the evening, after reciting the evening prayers, be permitted?   If one were to answer that the effect of nuts hindering prayer is long-lasting and therefore nuts should not be eaten at night, then could one not argue as well that we should also abstain from eating nuts during the day preceding the eve of Rosh Hashanah (erev Rosh Hashanah)?

If we look directly at Maharil, who is the source for the custom cited by Rema, we see that his explanation was not that it hinders prayer, rather that it hinders blowing the shofar.  The Maharil wrote as follows: [4]

Mahari Segal exhorted all the people to take care not to cough up or spit out when the shofar is blown, so that they hear the blast in its entirety and not miss the smallest bit.  There are various opinions as to whether the beginning or the end of the blast is the most important.  Be that as it may, anything that causes phlegm or mucus is forbidden to be eaten on Rosh Hashanah, and for this reason people take care not to eat nuts on Rosh Hashanah prior to the sounding of the shofar, since they cause a lot of phlegm.

It follows that one may eat nuts on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and after the sounding of the shofar. It is only in the day, prior to the shofar blowing, that one should abstain from eating nuts, so that they not cause one to cough and consequently not fulfill the obligation of hearing the shofar.

Parenthetically we note that this custom did not originate with Maharil.   Rather, he was discussing a custom that was already in practice, as he said, “for this reason people take care not to eat nuts…” [5]

It follows from all this that, as we have said above, the two reasons given by Rema are too insubstantial on which to base the custom.   It seems more likely that after the custom already existed but the reason had been forgotten these two reasons were found in order to explain it.

Traditional Foods

We suggest, hypothetically, another explanation of the origin of the custom.

Looking in the Shulhan Arukh and Rema’s glosses on par. 583.1-2, we find a list of foods that are traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah as symbols for the new year, following the saying of Rabbi Abaye: [6]   “Now that we say symbols have significance, on Rosh Hashanah a person should eat squash, beans, leeks, beets, and dates.”

If we consider the list of foods traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah, we see that they fall into two categories:  one, in which the name or appearance of the food is a sign indicating something good; the other, foods which are sweet or tasty, so that the flavor is a sign. What is more, in countries which spoke different languages, different reasons were given for eating each food. For example, ‘carrots’ has one symbolic meaning in Hebrew (‘to decree’), another in Yiddish (‘to increase’). The names of the foods mentioned in the gemara and cited in the Shulhan Arukh are given in Aramaic, i.e., the names of the foods appeared in a language that was in use at that time and place (Babylonia).

In view of this, perhaps people abstained from eating nuts on Rosh Hashanah because in Yiddish or German they are called nuss, a name that hints at something negative, namely running away or fleeing (Heb. menusah). Since the word for ‘nuts’ appeared in Hebrew, not in German or Yiddish, in every source in which posekim discussed the custom, the primary reason passed into oblivion. This reason for the custom would also explain why the practice of abstaining from nuts on Rosh Hashanah spread only in Europe and was not observed in eastern lands.

A similar custom of abstaining from a food whose name sounds like something bad is mentioned by Hida: [7]   “Rabbi Abudarham wrote that one should eat fish (Heb. dag), but Rashbatz there said that one should be concerned because of its name, since in Scripture we find the word dag spelled with an aleph ( da-ag = worried).”

In Mahazik Berakhah (loc. sit., par. 3) Hida reiterated:

Rashbatz wrote that one should not eat fish since we find it is written da-ag, as I cited in Birkei Yosef, and now I have found substantiation for what he said in Tikkunei ha-Zohar ha-Kadosh, p. 53b, printed in Constantinople, that dag is interpreted as related to the word de’aga (= worry, loc. sit.).

He added in the addenda (loc. sit., par.2):

Responsa Beit Yehudah, part I, at the end of the discussion of customs, p. 107b, wrote that some families in his city do not eat fish on Rosh Hashanah, and the reason he gave is for rejoicing (loc. sit.).  It seems to me that a better reason is that it sounds like da’ag, as Rashbatz said, and I brought supportive arguments.

Here, too, with the custom of abstaining from eating fish, the custom spread (contrary to the practice today) but the original reason was forgotten, and Responsa Beit Yehudah sought to give a new reason which Hida felt was unacceptable.   Therefore Hida returned to the explanation associating the custom with the sound of the name of the food.

                                                                                                                  



[1] “With the kolel” is a term used in gematria to denote cases where one had to add to the numerical value of the letters also the number of words in the phrase; in this case, since there is only one word, the numerical value of the letters in egoz “with the kolel” is 17(16+1) and in het, 17.

[2] Orah Hayyim, loc. sit.

[3] Rabbi Jacob Kopel Reinitz (to whom I am grateful) called my attention to the fact that Pri Megadim, in his work Eshel Avraham, par. 583.4, sensed this and added: “On Rosh ha-Shanah one has to be more silent and attentive to what the Hazzan is saying.”

[4] Minhagim, Hilkhot Shofar, par. 2.

[5] Kolbo, par. 64, wrote about the Maharam of Rothenburg, “He does not take care about eating garlic and nuts, or any other food.”   In other words, by the time of the Maharam of Rothenburg there were people who abstained from eating nuts on Rosh ha-Shanah.  (Again I wish to thank Rabbi Reinitz for calling my attention to this point.)

[6] Tractate Keritot 6a.

[7] Birkei Yosef, par. 583.5.