Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Rosh ha-Shanah 5766/ October 3-4, 2005

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,




Of Squashes, Shofars, and Symbols


 Dr. Aaron Arend


Department of Talmud


Tractate Horayot 12a presents a baraita which lays down the law that “kings are only to be anointed at a spring,” and notes this as symbolizing that their reign be long-lasting.   Further on in the discussion Abaye says:  “Now that we have determined that symbols have significance, one should always make it a practice to have in view on Rosh ha-Shanah qara and rubya, karti and silka, and tamri.”  Five foods are mentioned here:  squash, beans, leeks, beets, and dates.  Abaye’s remark may also be found in Tractate Kretot (6a), but there, instead of saying “have in view” he is recorded as having said that one should “eat” these foods. [1]   Abaye did not go into further detail; what we can fathom is that since symbols are significant, one should either look at or eat certain fruits and vegetables.   No explanation is given why precisely these foods were named, nor what is the point of looking at or eating them. In the days of the geonim these symbols were explained as a play on words related to the names of the foods.  The following was said of Rav Hai Gaon: [2]

He would be brought squash and Egyptian beans, leeks and dates, spinach and all sorts of fruits in a tray and honey and peas.   He would reach out his hand to the squash and say:  qara – may our harsh verdict be torn up [Heb. qra`]; rubya – may our merits be numerous [Heb. yirbu]; karti – may our foes be cut down [Heb. yikkartu];   tamri – may our sins come to an end [Heb. yittamu].  Then he would take the honey and the peas and recite the verse:   “a land of milk and honey…”

The rationalist philosopher Maimonides ignored Abaye’s remarks and did not cite them in his halakhic work, Mishneh Torah.   Also in the little that remains of his commentary on the Talmud we have found no commentary on Abaye’s words. [3]   But in Arba’ah Turim, and following that in Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim, par. 583) Abaye’s remarks are quoted along with a saying associated with the name of each food such as those we cited above.  The custom and its development have been discussed in the research and the custom has been given a variety of interpretations. [4]   There is early evidence for this custom in the region of Provence.   For example, Rabbi Abraham bar Nathan ha-Yarhi notes in Sefer ha-Manhig: [5]

This substantiates the custom in Provence to take all sorts of new things and place them on the table on the eve of Rosh ha-Shanah as good omens for all of the coming  new year ... and the custom of my ancestors has the weight of law.


When Maimonides’ disciples and the commentators on the Talmud who followed in his way encountered passages that seemed strange or unreasonable to them, they generally took them to be allegories or metaphors, and interpreted them so that they were consonant with a rational approach.   One such commentator was Rabbi Isaac bar Yedaiah, 13th century Provence, a student of Rabbi Meshulam ben Moshe of Bedres, author of Ha-Hashlamah.   Approximately in 1260 this scholar wrote a rational interpretation of the legends of the Talmud, and occasionally also of its halakhic rules. [6]   Little of the commentary is still extant, but that which has survived contains a commentary on Tractate Horayot, including the passage by Abaye, cited above. [7]   Abaye’s stipulation that certain foods be specially noted on Rosh ha-shanah, presented in the Talmud without explanation,   was interpreted by Rabbi Isaac in terms of the natural world of his times, without resorting to mysticism or folk beliefs about the virtues of looking at something, saying certain words, or eating certain foods.  He prefaced his discussion with the objective of sounding the shofar on Rosh ha-Shanah:

The day chosen for sounding a blast on the shofar to confound Satan, that day is considered more chosen than sacrifice and has become the day that serves as a sign for the set times, first of the months of the year, to rebuke Satan on that day, and for a man to resolve that he will confound Satan daily until the year is out; and thus one should do year after year, to bring benefit to one’s soul so that one’s evil inclination not be troublesome all one’s life, leading the flesh astray, neither day nor night, as we explained in Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah, that the sound of teki’a and tru’ah on the shofar are to subdue a person’s heart should he be brazen.

Thus the purpose of the shofar is to awaken a person to subdue his brazen heart, to fight against the evil inclination and Satan.  The shofar blast is sounded at the beginning of the year in order to influence the person throughout the entire year so that he fight the devil, i.e., against his evil inclination.  The connection between the shofar blast on Rosh ha-Shanah and the foods mentioned by Abaye he explains on the basis of the practices of the farmers who grow the vegetables:

It is known to be the nature of squash and the other vegetables mentioned that the sound of thunder and other loud noises help them ripen and produce their fruits quickly and easily – for you find that all gardeners, in squash season, are generally agreed that they should blow the shofar in their gardens, because the loud noise and blast loosens the soil in the garden, and the sunlight that comes down on the earth enters the interstices of the soil, warming the roots and bringing forth the fruit in a shorter time, for the soil will always be split by the sound of a great din, and the heat of the sun will enter there to warm the roots and ripen the fruit before its season.

Rabbi Isaac determined here that for growing the vegetables mentioned by Abaye the farmers in Abaye’s time used to blow shofars close to the earth so that the sound would loosen the earth and improve and hasten the growth of the fruit.   There is no doubt that in the time of Rabbi Isaac the farmers used to blow shofars, for had that not been the case he would not have mentioned this as a simple and well-known fact, “you find that all gardeners.” [8]   The question remains what exactly was the purpose of sounding the shofar.  One possibility is to take Rabbi Isaac’s depiction literally, that the farmers attempted by natural means to loosen the soil.   Today this technique is not used, even though of late studies have been made to show the impact of noise and music on the growth of certain plants. [9]   But I have found no hint in the literature describing agriculture in the Middle Ages of such techniques having been used by farmers.  Also, paintings of farmers in this period reveal no hint of any such practice. [10]

A more likely explanation is to see the action of the gardeners as having another objective.   It is well-known that loud noise was a celebrated means of chasing away evil and harmful spirits, and many a time such a sound was made for this purpose using the shofar. [11]   A prevalent notion in the past was that one could affect the earth’s fertility and yield by various rites, including some whose objective was to chase away evil and harmful spirits, or to appease them so that they not hurt the earth’s produce. [12]   Thus it appears that farmers in the time of Rabbi Isaac sought to improve the yield of their land using magic and therefore it was their practice to blow the shofar in their fields, so that the sound would chase away the evil spirits.   Rabbi Isaac was a rationalist and did not explain the blowing of the shofar at face value, that is, as an act of magic, rather as a “scientific” way to soften the earth.   The words, “for you find that all gardeners, in squash season, are generally agreed that they should blow the shofar in their gardens,” is indeed a precise description, but the continuation of the sentence, “because the loud noise...” reflects Rabbi Isaac’s rational explanation, not what was in the mind of the farmers.   Be that as it may, he interprets Abaye’s words in the light of this explanation:

Thus the Sages instructed a person to look at these fruits and recall through them the teruah, so that the teru’ah and any loud sound turn his heart back; for the teki’ah and the teru’ah on that day are for the person’s benefit.   Hence it is agreed among our people that each person place these fruits on the table on Rosh ha-Shanah, to remind the person who would make himself pure in those days of repentance, that he not be drawn to feast himself to the point of being sated by the tasty foods on his table and not crave its delicacies; [rather] that he feel the teki’ah and set his mind to it, to confound Satan so that he not be close at hand to trip him up.  Let the  teru’ah and teki’ah benefit his soul just as it as it benefits those fod items which he placed on his table on that eve; Let him “hear” the shofar sound that brings to his table fear and trembling.

Fruits are brought to the table on the eve of Rosh ha-Shanah as a reminder to human beings, so that they may learn from them:  just as the plants are influenced by the farmer’s shofar blast and alter their process of growth, for the sound of the shofar helps them grow and ripen, so too human beings should listen to the shofar which comes to awaken them to repent, and to “confound Satan” that is within them.   Rabbi Isaac also explained his particular custom, not mentioned explicitly by Abaye, to place these fruits on the table during the evening meal (which is what we do today):   the meal is a fitting occasion to see these foods, and to recall that one should distance himself from materialism, and not “eat until sated.” 

All that remains is to explain why Abaye mentioned dates, that grow on a tree, along with the vegetables, for the farmers’ shofar blast is intended only for loosening the soil, which benefits the vegetables. [13]   Rabbi Isaac goes on to explain that if a person subdues his heart as is required of him, then his prayers will be accepted and he will merit the greatest reward:   survival of his soul after his physical passing.  This reward is alluded to by the dates, which are placed on the table along with the vegetables:

If he humbles his heart on that very day and is broken and subdued,   G-d will not disdain his prayer and will draw close to him, granting his soul life after the material world, giving its fruit in its season. And to hint about the survival of the human soul if one directs one’s mind in the teki’ah to humble one’s heart – to that end the dates are placed on the table along with the vegetables.   For as it is known that the palm tree does not produce its fruit until it is seventy years old, so too a person who is whole in the eyes of G-d does not produce fruit on high until the material body has completed seventy years, his soul producing its fruit and good aroma – provided he break his hard-heartedness with the shofar blast every year.  For such is the nature of man – for his heart to fear and tremble upon hearing the sound of the shofar, as the prophet instructed from the mouth of the Almighty, and decreed, “When a ram’s horn is sounded in a town, do the people not take alarm?” (Amos 3:6).

The palm tree produces fruit only after seventy years, [14] a period of time similar to the life of a human being:   “The span of our life is seventy years” (Ps. 90:10).  A person who every year humbles his heart listening to the sound of the shofar will produce fruit after his passing, i.e., will receive the reward of immortality of the soul and everlasting life.  One could add that in the light of this explanation we can understand why dates are mentioned at the end of the list, for they intimate the reward that a person receives after learning from the fruits of the earth. [15]


[1] The versions saying “have in view” or “eat” are quite familiar, but other variants also existed.  Otzar ha-Geonim, Rosh ha-Shanah, Jerusalem 1933, p. 32, cites the Talmud, tractates Horayot and Kretot, as saying that these things must be “specially noted [Aramaic:  le-meihad] on Rosh ha-Shanah.”   Perhaps the verb le-meihazei (to see), which is not completely understandable, actually originated from le-meihad.  Rabbi Abraham bar Nathan ha-Yarhi, Sefer ha-Manhig, Jerusalem 1978, p. 304, writes:  linkot – “to take in hand.”

[2] Otzar ha-Geonim, loc. sit.

[3] See D. Henschke, Ha-Rambam ke-Mefaresh Divrei Atzmo,” Sefunot, 23 (2003), pp. 146-159.

[4] On this custom, See E.E. Halevy, Erkei ha-Aggadah ve-ha-Halakhah le-Or Mekorot Yevaniim ve-Latiniim, 2, Tel Aviv 1980, p. 224; also See Y. Tabori, Moadei Yisrael be-Tekufat ha-Mishneh ve-ha-Talmud, Jerusalem 1995, pp. 257-258; D. Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, 4 (1995), pp. 42-48.   For a collection of sources, halakhic discussions and interpretations dealing with the symbols of Rosh ha-Shanah, see E. A.Yitzhak, Sedei Ya’ar, Jerusalem 1998.  Also A. Arend, Pirkei Mehkar le-Yom ha-Atzma’ut, Jerusalem 1998, pp. 26, 94.  A similar sort of custom was observed in Baghdad:   it was customary to place some salt in the bowl held by the person checking for hametz on the eve before Passover.  One of the reasons given for this by Ben Ish Hai, Jerusalem 1986, 1, Parashat Tzav, was:  “As a good omen, that we be granted many more years of life, to check [for hametz] every year; for salt is a sign of eternal endurance, as it is written, ‘a covenant of salt,’ and a covenant is something that endures forever.”

[5] Sefer ha-Manhig, note 1 above, p. 304.  Also see note 13, below.

[6] An entire book is devoted to this work:  M. Saperstein, Decoding the Rabbis, Cambridge and London, 1989.  Also see I. Twersky, “R. Yeda’ya ha-Penini u-ferusho la-aggadah,”  Eiyin Haddah – Sefer ha-Yovel le-Alexander Altman, ed. Y. Stein and R. Halevy-Loewe, Alabama 1979, pp. 62-82; Y. Ta-Shema, Ha-Sifrut ha-Parashanit la-Talmud be-Eropa u-ve-Tzefon Africa, 2, Jerusalem 2000, p. 197.  For a description of rationalist interpretation of aggadah in the Middle Ages, see A. Arend, Elef ha-Magen le-R. Shemariah Ha-Akriti, Jerusalem 2003, pp. 35-40, and the references given there.

[7] We quote from the surviving text found in the Escorial manuscript G IV 3.  The commentary on Tractate Horayot printed by D. Genochovsky, Otzar ha-Perushim al Masekhet Horayot, Jerusalem 1969, pp. 12-15, is attributed to Rabbi Yedaiah ha-Penini, according to past beliefs.

[8] The idea that a loud noise can split the earth is mentioned in Scripture (I Kings 1:40):   “… the earth was split open by the uproar.”  The Talmud (Hullin 90b), however, interprets this verse as an exaggeration.   It should be noted further that in the conquest of Jericho, after the priest blew their horns, the people raised a mighty shout and then the walls collapsed (Josh. 6:20); the text is ambiguous whether, although it does not say there that it fell due to the din of the horns or the shouting of the masses.

[9] See Avital Lavi, “Effect ha-Mat’helah,” in, 14.6.03:  “Studies performed on plants have shown that rock music has a negative impact on growth due to its irregular beat.  Baroque music, in contrast, is directly related to rapid growth and good health in plants.”   I wish to thank Dr. Abraham Ofir Shemesh for directing me to this reference.

[10] See J. S. Berrall, The Garden: An Illustrated History, New York 1966.

[11] See J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough:  A Study in Magic and Religion, Vol. 6, The Scapegoat, London 1925, pp. 111, 117, 204, 214.   Also:   G. Nigal, Sipurei “Dibbuk” be-Sifrut Yisrael, Jerusalem 1983, p. 50; M. Bar-Ilan, “Gerush Shedim al yedei Rabbanim:  Mashehu al Issukam shel Hakhamei ha-Talmud be-Kheshafim,” Da’at, 34 (1994), p. 28 note 40; Y. Hayyut, “Rabbi Moshe Zekhut Megaresh ha-Ruhot:  Kabbalah, Magia, ve-Refuah ba-Et he-Hadashah,” Pe’amim, 96 (2003), p. 128; Esther Liebes (ed.), Shedim, Ruhot u-Neshamot:   Mehkarim be-Demonologia me’et Gershom Scholem, Jerusalem 2004, p. 56.

[12] See the magic chant to heal land that does not produce fruit in Harba de-Moshe (ed.Y. Harari), Jerusalem 1997, p. 44.  Also see Frazer (note 11 above), p. 111, who notes that there were places where it was customary to beat on drums and blow the horn in order to chase a demon away from the village, and that this was also thought to be beneficial in protecting the crops. 


[13] It should be mentioned that in quoting Abaye, Rabbi Isaac ben Yedaiah noted two kinds of fruits from trees – dates and figs – but in his commentary he did not explain the significance of the figs.  The custom in Provence of eating figs on the eve of Rosh ha-Shanah is mentioned in Mahzor Vitri, ed. S. H. Horowitz, Nurenberg 1923, p. 362:  “In Provence it is the custom to eat white grapes, white figs, a lamb’s head, and any new, good and light thing as a good omen for all of Israel.”

[14] This is apparently based on homilies that note the difficulty in cultivating dates.  For example, Midrash Tanhuma, Lekh Lekha, par. 5:  “Other trees, whenever they grow old they are cut down and a new one planted from one of their shoots grows immediately; the cedar and the palm –another  cannot   rise in their place except with great effort of many years.”  Also see Numbers Rabbah, 3.1:  “A palm tree, if uprooted has no replacement.”

[15] Another rationalist interpretation from the same period and place is that of Menahem ha-Meiri (1249-1315).  See his novellae (hiddushim) on Horayot, and his book Hibbur ha-Teshuvah, A. Sofer, ed., New York 1950, pp. 265-266.   The difference between his interpretation and Rabbi Isaac ben Yedaiah’s has been discussed by us elsewhere.