One of my favorite customs on Rosh Hashana are the special foods that we eat in the evening meals and the prayers/requests that we say when we eat them. This custom is universally called using the Hebrew word simanim but in Seattle we call it by the Ladino - Yehi Ratzones.
Although this is mainly a Sephardic custom the idea of these special foods goes back to the Talmud. In Masekhet Horayot it mentions that certain fruits and vegetables should be seen on our tables on Rosh Hashana whereas in Masekhet Keritut these special foods should be eaten. In a third version the yehi ratzones need only be brought to the table.
The foods mentioned in the Talmud are kara, rubia, karti, silka and temarim. Kara is identified as pumpkin, karti as leeks, silka as beets and temarim are dates. However, rubia is disputed. Some consider them to be black eyed peas others identify them as fenugreek. The medieval commentator Rashi explains that all these foods grow quickly so the idea is if we see/eat or bring these foods to the table we will have a productive year ahead.
Some questioned this practice because it looks like we believe by eating or seeing these foods automatically we will have a good year and this could be a form of divination or sorcery. However, many halakhic decisors come to the defense of this beautiful custom by stating these are merely omens and our sincere wish for a good year ahead. As a result it is the yehi ratzones – the prayers or requests that are said over these items which are far more significant. It is not the eating of them that we believe will cause a good year rather it is our hope that Hashem will grant us a good year.
There are other items we have for the yehi ratzones that are quintessentially considered to be Rosh Hashana. Apples and Honey, eating fish and having a fish or lamb’s head. On the 2nd night we have a pomegranate. All of these items have similar meanings to those identified in the Talmud. The fish or lamb’s head represents our hope that we be at the forefront of things and not in the background. Lambs' heads are very rarely seen these days, but my father recalls that his Grandfather always had a piece of meat from a lamb’s head at his Rosh Hashana and it was a great delicacy. Whether it is a fish head or a lamb’s head I’m very happy to fulfill the custom of just seeing it and not having to eat it!
These special supplications or bakashot are very poetic and are generally word plays on the fruits. Jerry Adatto brought to my attention the flowery language that Reverend David de Sola Pool used in the Spanish and Portuguese Rosh Hashana Prayer Book for these supplications. He doesn’t just translate the Hebrew supplication he uses beautiful artistic license too. For example on leeks he says “like as we eat this leek, may our luck never lack in the year to come”. Even though the Hebrew talks of our enemies being cut down from before us. On beets he writes “As we bite this beet, may those who in the past have beaten us or sought our harm beat to cover in the coming year”. On this occasion this is a paraphrase of the Hebrew but it shows you his literary style.
It has become a great game which I love to play using word plays in different languages not just in Hebrew. For example Rabbi Heinemann introduced a now famous custom throughout the Jewish world to take lettuce, half a raisin and celery as an indication to “let us have a raise in salary”. The Rubissa likes to put out cinnamon cookies and say “may our sins be kept to a minimum”. I am sure that you can all come up with your own funny puns for your own tables.
Wishing you and your families not only a good year ahead. But a year of finding the deeper meanings behind our beautiful customs. May we all grow together and invigorate our wonderful community.
Tizku LeShanim Rabbot Neimot VeTovot