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A Foodie Rosh Hashanah: Appetizers for Personal Growth

Dipping an apple in honey is the most popular in a series of simanim, symbolic foods, associated with the Rosh Hashanah feast. The custom is even recorded as far back as the Talmud. There are many other simanim, some simple and some exotic, that vary by community including: fish, pomegranate, fenugreek, black-eyed peas, carrots, dates, pumpkin, leeks, beets, fish heads or gefilte fish, and even chicken livers.

Some simanim correspond to curses and call for destruction of the enemies of the Jewish people. Some imply that their consumption will improve the general position of the Jewish people amongst the nations. Some are indications for having many children, and some that our merits be recalled and that evil decrees be undone.

So, if these simanim are so powerful then perhaps one could think that we don’t need to plead our case to God. Maybe we could just hold massive date and fish-head eating rallies and instantly safeguard the Jewish people and decimate our enemies? [I wouldn’t have that rally just yet.]

The late 13th century Catalan scholar, Rabbi Menachem Meiri, asked whether the simanim are a prohibited form of sorcery. This was several centuries before the Shulchan Aruch, which has chapter on simanim. The Meiri answered that simanim could be construed as sorcery, but they are really there to prod us into action:

“And so that we do not stumble into the forbidden territory of nichush, sorcery, the rabbis instituted that [along with eating them] one should recite statements that inspire teshuvah. So we say on the gourd that our merits should be ‘recalled before you,’ and on the fenugreek that ‘our merits increase,’ and on the leek ‘our enemies be cut off’ – it is referring to sins, the enemies of our soul – and on beets, ‘our sins be removed,’ and on the date, ‘our iniquities be vanquished etc.’” (Beit Habechirah, Horayot 12a).

So we can understand from the Meiri’s explanation that dipping the challah and apple in honey to symbolize our desire for a sweet and good year cannot on its own bring Hashem’s Mercy. Even though mercy is alluded to in the honey — דבש, honey, has the same gematria as אב הרחמים, Father of Mercy — it cannot be received without teshuvah, resolutions, and sincere prayers to Hashem. We use honey to remind us.

Just eating a sweet Medjool date isn’t going to have an effect on our physical enemies, nor on our internal spiritual enemies. Rather, the date reminds us that we can, and must, fight a battle with the yetzer hara (evil inclination).

Somewhere along the road we might have lost a deeper understanding of this teshuvah technology. We started to think that the simanimthemselves have the power to bring forth change in the world. No matter how much honey we eat, it won’t bring transformational change. However they can inspire change. As one of my students remarked, “It will remind me to look at the sweet things in life and not focus on the bitter.”

But rather than ignore the complex practice of the simanim because we don’t understand how to use it, or are afraid that it borders on sorcery, let’s enhance it.

There is also a wonderful mindfulness element that is part of the ritual, as we offer a kavanah an intention before eating each food. Most of the intentions are connected to a play on words between the Hebrew name of the food item and the desired outcome. (Read them here.)

Consider adding additional simanim (found in most traditional Rosh Hashanah prayer books) to your festive table. It might be pomegranates, heirloom beets or pumpkin pie. Use these as appetizers to start the conversation about teshuvah, prayer and tzedakah. The presence of these simanim foods can guide the Rosh Hashanah meal like the Seder plate guides the Pesach Seder, pr

oviding opportunities to share insights into teshuvah and encouragement, and to elevate the spirit.

Wishing you a real foodie Rosh Hashanah! May we all enjoy many delicious simanim as catalysts for the intense inner-work and heartfelt prayer we all need to bring about the changes we seek, and may we our world merit an outpouring of Divine Favor.


Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is co-founder of Pico Shul, a dynamic spiritual community in Los Angeles dedicated to spiritual growth, Torah learning, and helping others. During summers he operates Shabbat hospitality at national music festivals with Shabbat Tent. Rabbi Yonah also serves as Alevy Rabbi-in-Residence at USC Hillel.

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Undecided Senators Need a Call – Today!

We have spent weeks telling our elected officials: the current Iran Deal is flawed, will increase the likelihood of war and bloodshed in the near future, and will enable Iran to obtain nuclear weapons in almost no-time within 15 years. However, the administration has made it very hard for Senators to vote against the deal. Your phone call, email, Facebook message, or Tweet could help tip the balance on their vote.

Senator Michael Bennet (Colorado)
(202) 224-5852 or (303) 455-7600
Email Contact Form
Senator Cory Booker (New Jersey)
(202) 224-3224 or (973) 639-8700
Email Contact Form
Senator Maria Cantwell (Washington)
(202) 224-3441 or (206) 220-6400
Email Contact Form
Senator Ben Cardin (Maryland)
(202) 224-4524 or (202) 224-1651
Email Contact FormSenator Bob Casey, Jr. (Pennsylvania)
(202) 224-6324 or (215) 405-9660
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Senator Chris Coons (Delaware)
(202) 224-5042 or (302) 736-5601
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Senator Joe Donnelly (Indiana)
(202) 224-4814 or (812) 425-5862
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Senator Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota)
(202) 224-2043 or (701) 258-4648
Email Contact Form
Senator Mazie Hirono (Hawaii)
(202) 224-6361 or (808) 522-8970
Email Contact Form

Senator Ed Markey (Massachusetts)
(202) 224-2742 or (617) 565-8519
Email Contact FormSenator Barbara Mikulski (Maryland)
(202) 224-4654 or (410) 962-4510
Email Contact Form
Senator Patty Murray (Washington)
(202) 224-2621 or (206) 553-5545
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Senator Gary Peters (Michigan)
(202) 224-6221 or (313) 226-6020
Email Contact Form
Senator Debbie Stabenow (Michigan)
(202) 224-4822 or (313) 961-4330
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Senator Jon Tester (Montana)
(202) 224-2644 or (406) 586-4450
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Senator Mark Warner (Virginia)
(202) 224-2023 or (804) 775-2314
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Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island)
(202) 224-2921 or (401) 453-5294
Email Contact Form
Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon)
(202) 224-5244 or (503) 326-7525
Email Contact Form

From our friends at USAISRAEL.ORG


Historic Agreement of 1000+ Rabbis Against Flawed Iran Deal

Stop Iran Rally July 26, 2015 LA-2Jewish Leadership Across Denominations Call for a “Better Deal”

Over 1000 rabbis across every major denomination are calling on Congress to reject the nuclear deal with Iran. In an open letter to Congress, the rabbis urge members to reject the proposed deal and call on the administration to return to the negotiating table in pursuit of a better agreement.

This show of unity by rabbis is unprecedented in American Jewish history.

The letter was written jointly by Rabbi Kalman Topp, Senior Rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills and Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, Co-Founder of Pico Shul, Los Angeles.

“[W]e are deeply troubled by the proposed deal, and believe this agreement will harm the short-term and long-term interests of both the United States and our allies, particularly Israel,” the letter states. “[W]e agree with the assessments of leaders and experts in the United States, along with virtually all Israeli voices across the political spectrum, that we can, and must, do better,” they added.

Among the letter’s signatories are the President of Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox), the President of Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), and the immediate past president of Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform)— highlighting cross-denominational opposition to the Iran deal.

“This letter represents the sentiment of a broad breadth of the American Jewish community that this is a flawed deal that will not stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Rabbis Topp and Bookstein said. “Instead, this deal provides Iran with vast financial resources that it can use to further destabilize the region.”


Want to take action? Call your senator TODAY and tell them to vote against the deal

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Matisyahu Played, but BDS Racism Won

We won the battle but are losing the war.

As much as anyone I’m thrilled that Matisyahu performed “Jerusalem” at the Rototom reggae festival this past Saturday night in Spain.image

Organizers had to apologize and re-invite him after they cancelled him.

The cancellation was precipitated, according to the festival director, by radicals from BDS who convinced organizers that Matisyahu must submit a public condemnation of Israel and Zionism in order to perform. It’s cynical nasty stuff. It’s inquisition-esque.

Don’t believe the festival director that he cancelled Matisyahu over fears of a seriously disrupted festival. After he contacted Matisyahu, the director would settle for nothing less than a pro-BDS, anti-Israel video or statement according to my sources. It wasn’t just support of a Palestinian state they wanted. They wanted Matisyahu to disavow Israel.

Matisyahu refused to submit. So they cancelled him in a disgusting and public manner.

But racism wasn’t going to win – at least this time.

The festival director came under huge pressure from the government, music fans in Spain and across the globe, and in the Spanish media. This festival after all received government funding. The cancellation was a major embarrassment to Spain who is trying to invite decedents of Jews expelled by the Inquisition back for citizenship. (What Jew is going back to Spain when inquisitors are still at large?)

Matisyahu is no more in control of the destiny of Israeli-Palestinian relations that you reading this article. He’s a proud American Jew and he was targeted because he’s a Jew.

Did the organizers question the gay-hating reggae singers about their political views?

Did the submit the other artists to political and social litmus tests?

No. Only Matisyahu was singled out because he’s a Jew.

While the Jewish community, fans of Matisyahu, and anti-racism and anti-BDS activists are celebrating this victory, we must realize this was still in the long term a victory for BDS.

European festivals next summer are going to think twice about booking Matisyahu. Not Poland which is hosting him again for multiple shows and has been for several years. (Respect!) But Western European festivals in countries with active anti-Israel movements (I think that’s every country) will consider this incident before signing the most publicly Jewish musician in the world.

I’m not surprised that major Jewish artists haven’t come forward to support Matisyahu. In the world of music the money is in touring and famous Jewish musicians will be concerned to be targeted themselves. Better stay quiet it seems.

This episode in the BDS battle against Israel, amid growing European anti-Jewish racism, will have a lasting and negative impact on Jewish musicians who want to perform there – let alone Israeli musicians who will find getting booked increasingly difficult in Western Europe.

As much as I want that to not be true, as much as I believe that Matisyahu’s inspired performance was a victory for justice, we must face the grey future of uncertainty as racism and anti-Israel fervor spreads on the continent that 70 years ago exterminated most of its Jewish population.