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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, providing 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.

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How are we Doing as a Planet This Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, has profound meaning for the entire world and humanity. Most people familiar with the holiday think of apples, honey, shofar, and as one of the two days that every Jew goes to synagogue.

We understand that Rosh Hashanah is about being a better person, reflecting on the past year, and refining our own personal spiritual goals and aspirations for the year to come. All of that is true and important. What we often fail to approach is the deep connection between Rosh Hashanah and the world around us. For every year on Rosh Hashanah we have the opportunity to reflect upon the state of our planet, our environment, and look at our past actions and set goals for the next year of Life on Earth.

The ancient sages teach that on Rosh Hashanah all of humanity is judged for its actions, and that includes how we treat our world. How did we act as citizens of the planet? How much did we factor into our actions the impact that we are having on the environment? And as one of the Hasidic masters taught, “where did we succeed and how can we get better?” One of the areas that I am especially sensitive to this year is energy. Much of the darkness in this world is related to energy; the competition for resources and the environmental, justice and geopolitical consequences of energy extraction and management. If we want to change the world, to help conquer that darkness, we just have to look up.

The sun.

We have failed as a society to harness the great potential of solar energy to help alleviate the world’s energy problems. The sun can offer healing to a planet that is desperate for ways to maintain progress without damaging the environment. Yet, with all the ingenuity in the world which manages to put into the palm of our hands a computer more powerful that the ones which brought us to the moon, the average household relies only on solar energy to power calculators.

Don’t look to rabbis to solve the world’s energy problems. However, in my discussions with people whose business is energy, and research of reliable studies, I have learned that investments in solar energy — and renewable energy sources in general — are far below what experts recommend. While solar to energy conversion rates are improving, meaning that we can harness more energy of the sun per solar panel, we are not directing significant capital into R&D to improve solar energy technology. Imagine if the folks that created the smartphone were given 5 billions dollars to work on solar energy.

It’s almost Rosh Hashanah. The time has come for us to make some serious decisions about the future of our relationship with the planet this coming year. If we are truly to be a light unto the nations, then we can light the way towards cleaner sources of energy.

Tashlich: Unloading Negativity


The ancient custom of Tashlich brings us to living bodies of water where we symbolically cast our sins into the depths of the water. But the ceremony is, pardon the pun, so MUCH deeper. The things we cast into the water are not just sins, but bad traits, negativity, hurt, and more.

Join us in LA for Tashlich
https://www.facebook.com/events/200499773450844/?ref=br_tf

Upping our Game: The Days of Awe


The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of awesome possibilities. However to access the great potential we need to “up our game” in performance of mitzvot. From ritual to learning, we all can achieve and push ourselves more and will reap the benefit in our relationship with God.