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Symbolism or Semantics

Leor Jacobi

Eating special foods, simanim, on the eve of Rosh HaShanah is one of the most widely observed and cherished of all Jewish minhagim. Yet for its universal acceptance, much about the simanim remains shrouded in mystery. How do they work? Why do some of the simanim involve wordplay and some not? The answers to these questions and more in this comprehensive look at this ubiquitous custom.

Monday, September 06, 2010


While certainly one of the most commonly practiced minhagim of the Jewish year, much of the esoteric custom regarding the simanim we have on the eve of Rosh HaShanah has fallen under suspicion over the course of the centuries since it was first introduced.

What exactly is a siman? 

In a broader context, it means a sign or a mark of identification on an object or an animal. In regard to the eve of Rosh HaShanah, it seems to be an indication of things to come during the year. The word siman seems to be etymologically related to the English word semantic, itself a Greek relative of the more ancient sema, which led to the English sign. A sign will sometimes point us towards another entity by telling us, in words, where the entity is. Such a sign uses semantics.

But we can also pick up indications regarding an entity by seeing pictures or other representations of the entity, Such simanim are symbolic of that entity, not merely a semantic pointer to it.

A road sign with the words “Jerusalem Forest” written on it, for instance, is merely semantic; if it has a picture of a tree on it, it is also symbolic. Assembly instructions that accompany furniture or an appliance may be written in English — in which case you’re lucky — or maybe in another language that you might be able to decipher. If you’re really unlucky, it’ll be written in Chinese or Turkish. To avoid these semantic problems in today’s global economy, many manufacturers now use symbolic picture instructions without words in any language.

This distinction between merely semantic signs and fully symbolic representations is the key to understanding some variances in customs regarding the simanim.

Ancient Roots

The first record we have of consumption of special foods on Rosh HaShanah is in the Book of Nechemiah (8:1–15).

In a public gathering, Ezra HaSofer read from a Torah scroll before the Jewish people, who, upon realizing that they had not been following the Torah properly, began to cry. Nechemiah tells them not to be sad on the holy day, but rather, “Eat fatty meats and drink sweet drinks and send portions for those who don’t have any prepared.”

Several Rishonim quote a responsum from the time of the geonim that cites this verse as the source for eating sweet foods on Rosh HaShanah. In addition to eating rich and sweet foods, the practice of eating the head of a sheep (or ram) is also mentioned in that responsum. The head itself is symbolic of greater success and victory, of being “number one.” Many examples of this symbolism are found in Tanach and in Chazal.

Clearly, the rich, fatty meats and sweet delicacies are symbolic of our joy and hopes for the coming year, expressed through eating them. The names of the foods are not important – their essence is.

This custom made its way in one form or another to medieval Ashkenaz, France, where we find the first mention of eating sweet red apples, and Provence. Interestingly, however, these Rishonim don’t mention the simanim found in Talmud Bavli, which, as we are about to see, are semantic.


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