Question: There is a custom to eat special foods on Rosh Hashanah. What are the sources of this custom? Why do Ashkenazim and Sefaradim eat different foods on Rosh Hashanah?
I) The Sources for the Custom
The first hint of this custom is found in the book of Nehemiah (8:9-10), which was written in Eretz Yisrael after 445 BCE. At the beginning of the seventh month, after reading the Torah scroll to the entire people, “Nehemiah… and Ezra the priest… said to the entire people: ‘Today is holy to the Lord your God, do not mourn and do not cry… go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord’.”
In any case, all of the customs today are based on the words of Abbaye (Babylon, 4 th century CE) which appear in two Talmudic passages (Horayot 12a and Keritot 6a). After a passage which explains how to perform an omen to check whether you will return home from a trip, Abbaye said: “Now that you said that an omen is effective, a person should always be accustomed to see (l’mehezay ) kara (gourd), rubia (fenogrec), kartey (leeks), silka (beets) and tamrey (dates) on Rosh Hashanah”.
II) The Reasons for the Custom
Why did Abbaye say to see these foods on Rosh Hashanah? The simple reason is that this is a type of magic; we do a positive act on Rosh Hashanah, which will have a positive effect on the entire year. Indeed, this was the explanation given by a number of rabbis and scholars:
Rav Natronai Gaon (Sura, mid-ninth century) was asked about these customs and he replied that “they are a good nahash (divination)” (Otzar Hageonim to Rosh Hashanah , Responsa section, p. 53, parag. 94 = Teshuvot Rav Natronai Gaon , ed. Brody, p. 306). In Sefer Hamanhig , written by R. Abraham of Lunel (Toledo, 1204, ed. Raphael, p. 304), it says that on the evening of Rosh Hashanah they put on the table special foods ” l’simana tava (for a good omen) for the next year” but in ms. A it adds “l’simana tava v’nahsha ma’alya” (and an excellent divination).
Similarly, Rashi explains in his commentary to Keritot 6a: “And these [foods] – some grow quickly and some are sweet”. In other words, we look at things that grow quickly or are sweet as an omen for a good and sweet year (cf. Rashi to Horayot 12a for a similar explanation). A similar explanation is given by Mahzor Vitry (p. 362), which was edited by Rashi’s student R. Shimshon of Vitry ca. 1120. After bringing some of the customs under discussion, he says: “Everything new and light and good – for a good omen for the entire Jewish people”.
And so explained Hayyim Schauss in his classic work The Jewish Festivals (pp. 158-159), which was translated from the Yiddish in 1938:
This custom is based on an ancient magical belief, that every activity calls forth its counterpart… and if one eats sweet dishes at the beginning of the year, sweetness will abide for the entire year. This is an old primitive belief, widespread amongst all peoples.
Indeed, the Chinese observe similar customs on their New Year:
Long noodles promised longevity. Oysters in my local dialect meant “alive”. Eggs were round and perfect… and if you twisted the pronunciation of “seaweed” a little, it sounded a lot like the word that meant “fortune”. (Da-Chen, Colors of the Mountain, New York, 1999, p. 56)
However, there were rabbis who did not like the magical explanation for these customs and who looked for more rational explanations. Thus, for example, Rabbi Ya’akov Anatoli (Provence and Naples, thirteenth century) in his book Malmad Hatalmidim (Lyck, 1866, fol. 180b) said that even though the Talmud itself says that these foods are an omen, “not that these foods should appear like the divination of fools and women; but since satiation makes one forget the intent of the day, a person must see these foods and think about the similar-sounding words [which express the things we pray for on Rosh Hashanah – see below]”. Indeed, a similar and lengthier explanation is given by the Meiri in his Hibbur Hateshuvah , written in Provence ca. 1300 (ed. Sofer, New York, 1950, pp. 265-266). Nevertheless, the simple explanation is preferable.
III) The Three Customs in the Geonic Period
In the Geonic period, Abbaye’s custom developed in two directions. On the one hand, they began to recite aloud the omen associated with each food. On the other hand, they did three different actions with each food on the basis of three different readings of one of Abbaye’s words, which was emphasized above:
(I have found 12 manuscripts or medieval rabbis who have the reading l’mehezey.
“L’meyhad” appears in both Talmudic passages according to R. Matzliah (see parag. III, 2) and cf. Sefer Hamanhig who has the reading “linkot ” = to hold.
“Lemeykhal” appears in Horayot according to Aggadot Hatalmud and in Keritot according to the printed editions and Tur Orah Hayyim 583).
It is quite likely that the three readings stemmed from the abbreviation “l’me’ ” which each copyist completed in a different fashion. In any case, these three readings led to three different customs in the Geonic period:
1. An anonymous Gaon (Otzar Hageonim to Rosh Hashanah , pp. 52-53, parag. 93) quotes the passage from Horayot 12a with the reading d’hazey (to see) and continues:
…And they put before them a basket which contains gourd, Egyptian ful (beans), leeks, vegetables, spinach, and dates and they look at it and they put their hands [on each of them] and they extract from its name a good omen. On the gourd they say: ” Kara – yikara , may our evil decree be torn”. On the ful: ” Rubia – yirbu zchuyoteinu , may our merits increase”. On the leeks: ” Kartey – yikartu, may our enemies be cut off”. On the spinach: ” Silka – yistalku avoneinu, may our sins go away”. On the dates: ” Tamrey – yitamu avonoteinu , may our sins end”. And they add a pomegranate and they say on it: ” Nirbeh zchuyoteinu k’rimon, may our merits increase like [the seeds of] a pomegranate”…
In other words, according to this responsum, we look at the foods and then touch them and say the wordplays, following the reading l’mehezay = to see in the Talmud.
2. In testimony about Rav Hai Gaon (d. 1038; Otzar Hageonim to Rosh Hashanah,
p. 52 parag. 92), we are told:
It was found written in a letter from R. Matzliah ben Eliyahu of Sicily, who visited Rav Hai on Rosh Hashanah and found him returning from the synagogue and his students after him and they brought him gourds and Egyptian ful and leeks and dates and spinach and fruits in a basket and honey and peas. And he reached out his hand to the gourd and said: Kara [etc. as above in parag. 1]. So did he take the honey and the peas and said: “A land flowing [with milk and honey] (Exodus 3:8 and elsewhere)… And each of his students took from the basket … to his house. And they do so because we learn in Horayot and Keritot … a person must hold (l’meyhad ) on Rosh Hashanah…
In other words, Rav Hai used to hold the foods and recite the wordplays, according to the reading l’meyhad, to hold , in the Talmud.
3. Rav Natronai Gaon discussed our topic in a responsum (Otzar Hageonim to Rosh Hashanah, pp. 53-54, parag. 94; I have used the Brody edition, pp. 305-306):
… and regarding your question that we take the heads of sheep on Rosh Hashanah and eat [them] … this is a good nahash (divination) and most of the people in Babylon are accustomed to this, that on Rosh Hashanah eve they take meat or heads [of animals] and they cook them in barley or in something sweet… and they say: “We will eat sweet things and meat and fatty things in order that the entire year will be sweet and pleasant and that it should not contain anything bad or any trouble”.
In other words, Rav Natronai used to eat the foods and recite the wordplays; we can assume that he had the reading l’meykhal = to eat in the Talmud.
IV) Additional Customs from the Rishonim and the Aharonim
However, during the period of the Rishonim (1000-1500), rabbis who quoted the reading l’mehazey – to see from the Talmud, also reported that the foods were eaten on Rosh Hashanah! (See Mahzor Vitry , p. 362; Shibboley Haleket , p. 266; Abudraham, p. 266; and cf. Orhot Hayyim , fol. 99d who has the reading “lehezay”, to see, but explains “to take” as if he had the reading ” l’meyhad”). In other words, the clear connection between the reading in the Talmud and the actual custom was lost; slowly but surely Jews began to eat all of the foods. Furthermore, the Rishonim added foods that were not mentioned by Abbaye. This may have been because they could not identify the vegetables mentioned by Abbaye or because those vegetables did not grow in their locale.
Mahzor Vitry (see above; France, ca. 1120) quotes Abbaye with the reading l’mehazey (to see) and adds: “From this source the Jews of France used to eat on Rosh Hashanah red apples , and so too in Provence they eat white grapes and white figs and the head of a sheep , everything new and light and good for a good omen for the entire Jewish people”.
Sefer Hamanhig (see above; Toledo, 1204) quotes Abbaye with the reading linkot (to hold) and adds: “And from here I have a support for the custom of Provence to take all new things and to put [them] on the table on the nights of Rosh Hashanah, as a good omen for the entire next year, the head of a sheep ‘that they should be a head and not a tail’ (cf. Deut 25:13) and lung, which is light…” (pp. 304-305).
Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (Ashkenaz and Spain, d. 1343 in Toledo, Tur Orah Hayyim 583) quotes Abbaye from Keritot with the reading l’meykhal (to eat), and then adds: “And from this the customs multiplied, every place according to its custom, like in Ashkenaz, where they are accustomed to eat at the beginning of the meal a sweet apple with honey [and] to say ‘May we have a sweet year’. He then quotes from Sefer Hamanhig and adds: “Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg used to eat the head of a ram in memory of Isaac’s ram (Genesis 22:13)”. Sefer Abudraham Hashalem (Spain, 14th century, p. 266) contains a similar passage.
The Shulkhan Arukh is based on the above sources. R. Yosef Karo rules (Orah Hayyim 583:1-2) that a person should eat the five foods mentioned by Abbaye and recite the wordplays. He adds that people eat the head of a sheep to say “May we be a head and not a tail” and in memory of Isaac’s ram.
The Rema adds (ibid.) that some eat sweet apple with honey and some eat pomegranates and some eat fatty meat and various sweets.
The Aharonim (1500 ff.) added additional foods on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Avraham Danzig (Vilna, d. 1820) wrote in Hayye Adam (Klal 139:6) that we eat “merrin ” on Rosh Hashanah and we say: “May God increase our merits”. “Merrin” in Yiddish means “carrots” and “mer” in Yiddish means “more” – so we eat carrots in order to increase our merits on Rosh Hashanah. Indeed, this is why Ashkenazim eat sweet tzimess made out of carrots on Rosh Hashanah.
Finally, French-speakers in Jerusalem have a custom of eating bananas on Rosh Hashanah because “banana” in French sounds like “bonne année”, a good year! (So I was informed by Rabbi Eitan Chikli and by my wife, Dory Golinkin).
In conclusion, Sefardic Jews and Jews of Islamic lands, conduct a “Seder Rosh Hashanah” on the night of Rosh Hashanah, in keeping with the Geonim, Abudraham and R. Yosef Karo, in which they eat 6-11 different foods and recite the appropriate wordplay over each food (See the booklet by Rabbi Avraham Zaitun listed in the bibliography below). The Ashkenazim eat a sweet apple dipped in honey, the head of a fish and/or a sheep, and tzimess on the basis of the Tur, the Rema and Hayye Adam . However, these customs are very fluid and flexible as we have seen, so it is possible to adopt different foods.
May we enjoy these special foods on Rosh Hashanah and “may it be God’s will that we should have a sweet New Year”.
Rosh Hodesh Elul 5768
Akiva Ben Ezra, Minhagey Hagim, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1963, pp. 10-14
Rabbi Shem Tov Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov, Part 6, London, 1955, pp. 96-101
Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer, Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 583
Asher Waserteil, editor, Yalkut Minhagim , third edition, Jerusalem, 1996
Rabbi Avraham Zaitun, Seder Rosh Hashanah Beit Avraham, Jerusalem, 2004, 46 pages (16 different versions of Seder Rosh Hashanah )
Rabbi Yehudah Dov Zinger, Ziv Haminhagim , Jerusalem, 1965, pp. 155-156
All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.
Prof. David Golinkin is President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate it, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at email@example.com . The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.