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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.

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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.

Half-Truths and Israel-Blaming Don’t Make a Convincing Case for the Iran Deal

The reason [the Iran Deal] it is so controversial in the United States is because the political leader of Israel has said that the deal represents a mortal threat to the security of Israel. — Joe Cirincione

In dissecting the reality that is the confusion surrounding the impending deal with Iran, the Jewish Journal ran an article with an interview with Joe Cirincione. Cirincione is “a nuclear policy expert who served for nearly a decade on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee, beginning during the Reagan administration.” He currently runs the Ploughshares Fund, which is dedicated to the eradication of nuclear weapons.

Sometimes all it takes is one line to really understand where someone is coming from.

Cirincione lays the blame for the Iran deal’s difficulties at the feet of Israel and its very vocal Prime Minister. Although Cirincione adds that Republican politics are at play as well, it is Israel that he calls out. Very telling.

That line is enough to undermine what he has to say on the Iran Deal because he cannot possibly be providing a unbiased appraisal of the deal.

But this is a lengthy interview and presents other points that are misnomers or half-truths.

Cirincione argues in favor of the current deal with Iran, and that Israel’s security will be enhanced by the deal. He calls Israeli’ Prime Minister wrong, saying “He’s wrong. Every single argument that he presents has been thoroughly answered and rebutted by the best and brightest national security and military experts in United States government”.

Cirincione seems to have not read that other nuclear experts, military experts, international leaders, and people in his own government are questioning the deal.

Arms-control expert David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former weapons inspector in Iraq, is quoted in the NY Times:

…three weeks might be ample time for the Iranians to dispose of any evidence of prohibited nuclear work. Among the possibilities, he said, were experiments with high explosives that could be used to trigger a nuclear weapon, or the construction of a small plant to make centrifuges.

Alan J. Kuperman, an associate professor and the coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas at Austin who published “The Iran Deal’s Fatal Flaw” in the NY Times as well:

By my calculations, Iran’s actual breakout time under the deal would be approximately three months — not over a year. Thus, the deal would be unlikely to improve the world’s ability to react to a sudden effort by Iran to build a bomb.

Then there are the several hundred military experts here in the US opposed to the deal.

In addition to these voices, there are reasoned and critical thinkers, experts on foreign policy, that are critical of the deal.

Robert Satloff has asked 10 questions to Obama via Jeffrey Goldberg, that cannot be ignored, or swept under the rug with “every argument has been thoroughly answered and rebutted” because they have not.

Lastly there is this mistake; “The history shows that you cannot stop a country from getting a nuclear weapon if that country is intent on getting one.”

When Israel destroyed Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities that stopped their respective weapons programs.

Certainly not everything Cirincione said is wrong. For example he said:

This deal keeps the conventional arms embargo on Iran in effect for five more years. Five years from now, will the embargo be lifted? Yes. This deal does not solve all our problems with Iran. It doesn’t address their support for Hamas and Hezbollah; it doesn’t address their human rights record; it doesn’t get American prisoners out of Iran.

What will not stop an Iranian nuclear weapons programs, in my opinion and the opinion of others, is this Iran deal, currently days away from passing, that will allow Iran to maintain a nuclear infrastructure capable of producing a nuclear weapons in three months —  all with the help and oversight of the United States.

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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
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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
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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
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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
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Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon)
(202) 224-5244 or (503) 326-7525
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From our friends at USAISRAEL.ORG

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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.”

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