Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Rosh Hashanah 5760/ 30 September 2000

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.
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Rosh Hashanah 5760/ 30 September 2000

Good Signs for the New Year

Hadas Abarbanel-Gerber
Department of Jewish Literature

The beginning of a new year brings with it hope and anticipation for good times to come and fulfillment of one’s wishes. This hope and anticipation finds expression in the prayers for benevolent judgment, in the wishes we give each other to be inscribed in the Book of Life, in the blessing of She-heheyanu, which symbolizes renewal and rejuvenation, and in eating the traditional symbolic foods of the holiday repast.

The Gemara says:[1] “Abaye said, ‘Now, since you say that it is actually symbolic, on Rosh Hashanah one should make a custom of eating qara, rubya, karti (squash, beets, leeks).’” The Gemara stresses the importance and tangible reality of these symbols. Some people have adopted the practice of the Gemara with the additional custom of eating apple and honey, while others add pomegranates, or a lamb’s or fish’s head – each food with its symbolism.

In his book, the Maharil, Rabbi Jacob Segal, stresses the practice of eating an apple dipped in honey for us to begin a good and sweet year, and finds indications for this in the Torah, Prophets and Writings, and in the Kabbalah. Likewise, he explains the custom of eating a ram’s head in commemoration of the binding of Isaac, and so that we shall “be ahead [Heb. le-rosh=head], and not behind [Heb.le-zanav =tail].” The author of Ta’amei ha-Minhagim u-Mekorei ha-Dinim adds that le-Rosh is an acrostic for la’asot retzon avinu she-bashamayim, to do the bidding of Our Father in Heaven.

In his prayer book, Beit Ya’akov, Rabbi Jacob Emden cites reasons for eating other symbolic foods, each reason derived from a play on words: rubia– that our merits be many [Heb. yirbu]; karti– that our foes be cut down [Heb. yikartu]; silka [beets] – that our foes vanish [Heb. yistalku]; tamari [dates] – that our foes cease [Heb. yitamu]; qara – that our [harsh] verdict be expunged [Heb. yikar’a] and our merits be read before You [Heb. yikar’u]. Another reason given for eating qara (Ta’amei ha-Minhagim u-Mekorei ha-Dinim) is that “it grows by the strength of the moon, which moves the tides and calls forth good deeds/mercy; and it is cold within, and this is cooling and commuting harsh punishment.” The Mishnah Berurah gives a reason for the custom of eating pomegranates: that we have as many merits as a pomegranate [has seeds]. The Shulhan Arukh gives a reason for eating fish: “because it alludes to being fruitful and multiplying as fish [spawn].”

How do such symbols “work”? According to semiotics, the theory of signs, every sign or symbol is comprised of a signifier and its significance. The signifier is the tangible part of the sign, defining its form and essence, while the significance pertains to the conceptual content, defining the meaning and nature or quality of the sign. Thus, the significance of the various signs is derived from the signifier. There is no uniformity among signifiers, however, so that each sign has its own signifier that relates it to its significance.

Some foods were chosen as signs because of the way they grow, such as pomegranates with their numerous seeds, or for their natural characteristics, like fertility in fish. Others were chosen for their flavor, like honey, which is eaten with apples and hallah; while yet others were chosen for their names, a saying being added in order to emphasize the phonetic connections, such as qara and yikar’u, karti and yikartu, silka and yistalku, rubia and yirbu, and tamar and yitamu.

Another noteworthy point is that the signs come from the animal and vegetable world: fish and meet, fruits and vegetables. Thus, an attempt was made to encompass the broadest scope of areas over which to make blessings.

Another approach to these signs is to analyze the sayings associated with them. Some signs are tied to a positive remark, whereas others are accompanied by a negative statement. Rabbi Jacob Emden relates to this distinction: “If the sign is bad, let it be against our foes, and if good, let it be a sign for us... Therefore, reinforce the good sign by words of the mouth, which undoubtedly make an impression.” For example, “Bring us a good and sweet New Year,” and “Let our foes disappear.”

Eating the symbolic foods belongs to a class of customs whose main content lies in its symbolism; these are customs that lend concrete expression to an abstract idea.[2] The symbolic act is accompanied by a symbolic statement. The linguist Roman Jacobson classified things people say by maintaining that all verbal behavior is aimed at achieving a purpose. The objectives may differ and therefore one must suit the means to the desired ends. He identifies six factors comprising a verbal message (the sender, the message, the receiver, the connection, the code, and the contact), and from these he derives six functions, each one emphasizing a different factor. Thereby a different objective is achieved by each message.[3]

When the symbolic foods are eaten accompanied by a saying which expresses the wish associated with the sign, a message is transmitted from the sender to the receiver. The content of the message is the wish expressed by the sender, which is to be fulfilled by the receiver, by virtue of the act of eating the symbolic food. Emphasis is on the emotive-expressive function, which is principally a direct expression of the relation of the speaker to the message, and on the conative function (exertion of willing that desire) which stresses the receiver and the fact that the message has been sent and will reach its destination.

The fact that the message has been sent and will reach its destination and the hope for fulfillment of the wish formulated in the message find expression in other symbolic acts. One can mention such symbolic practices as blowing the shofar, the tashlikh ceremony (D. Sperber, loc. sit., pp. 117-121). As Rabbi Jacob Emden writes, “There are many fine signs that the Jews have on this day which marks the beginning of existence and the root of their success.”

[1] Tractate Keritot 6a and parallel variant in Horayot 12a.
[2] D. Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, Part III, p. 113.
[3] R. Jakobson, Balshanut u-Poetika, Ha-Sifrut, Vol. 2.
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