One of the highlights of most people’s Jewish calendar is the Rosh Hashana seder, at which we customarily eat foods we call Simanim – loosely, “Signals”.
Dipping the apple in the honey is the iconic classic, and every community has their own, be it beets; dates; leeks; pomegranates; pumpkins; beans; or even a whole lamb head.
What turns a quaint dish into a time-honored tradition is the small prayer that accompanies it, consisting of some sort of pun or wordplay: apples are sweet, so we wish each other a sweet year. Pomegranates are full of seeds, so we wish to be full of good deeds. The head is where the brain is, so we pray that we are the heads and not the tails.
You can even make up your own. Some French-speaking communities eat bananas – which sounds like “Bonne Année”, the French greeting for “Happy New Year”.
This all sounds like good fun, and possibly light-hearted.
Yet it is anything but that.
The Gemara states that Simanim are a legitimate thing – סימנא מלתא. History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes – our ancestors’ stories signal a possible future of ours – מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.
The Simanim on Rosh Hashana are not frivolous games.
R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the Simanim are supposed to make an impression, bringing our thoughts and aspirations into the world of action through this activity.
When Israel’s prophets would warn the Jews of impending exile, they would also have a visual cue symbolizing their approaching demise, offering an experience of the prophecy through actions, senses, and feelings rather than through the words of the prophet. Jeremiah wore a cattle yoke, signaling the burdens to come; Isaiah walked around nearly naked, signaling the people’s vulnerability and defenselessness; Ezekiel had to bake a bread substitute over manure, signalling the unclean foods the Jewish People would subsist on in exile. The action was not an eccentric restatement of the message; it was a key part of their duty to warn about the posible future,
The Simanim are indicators that initiate action, beginning the process of actualizing our hopes and dreams.
Breaking some of the common Simanim down shows the depth of their meaning.
For the apple and honey, staples at every Rosh Hashana table, the prayer we say is may the year ahead be good but also sweet. Because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet – תְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה
The word for “year” – שנה – shares a root with the words reiteration and change. The way to another year is through change – שינוי. Retracing steps, something new on top of something old, isn’t progress. A drawing that is erased still leaves the paper smudged. We don’t ask for another year, but a “new” year. The most incredible thing we can ask for is a fresh start and a new iteration – שתחדש.
Instead of bringing old baggage, we should realize the choice is ours.
Different communities differ on whether they eat a morsel from a fish head or lamb head, but the blessing is the same: may we be heads, not tails – שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב.
When looking at an animal, it may seem like they are essentially the same, just a body length apart.
Rabbi Shlomo Farhi suggests that actually, the tail can occupy the same space as the head, but it can never get to where the head is, because the head leads, and the tail just follows.
While we don’t get to control all circumstances, variables, and people that make up our lives; we do get to exercise our free will. All we really are is the sum of the choices we’ve ever made. While we can’t choose to be happy, healthy, or successful; we can choose to take steps those things more possible.
In other words, all we can choose is what we choose.
If choices define you, and you are a passenger to someone else’s choices, you are their tail. Floating with the current is not the same as swimming.
Rav Shimshon Pinkus explained it as a wish for a year that is intentional – לראש; with constant course corrections going forward – שנהיה; because if your actions today are based on yesterday’s decisions, can end up being your own tail!
There is a reason that the Simanim are beloved in every Jewish home. They bring our hopes and dreams from the realm of thought into the sensory world we can touch and feel.