January 16, 2019

Simanim: Signs of a new year

No question that Rosh Hashanah is known as one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar, but it is not known for its comedy. If you look carefully among all the serious themes of starting over, forgiveness and repentance, however, you may find one New Year tradition that clears a space for groans and guffaws: the tradition of “simanim,” a series of pun-shaped wishes for a successful new year.

According to the website of the Star-K (an Orthodox kashrut site), different sources in the Talmud in two different tractates indicate that various foods bring luck for the new year. And, as with most matters, the rabbis disagree about the simanim: One says they’re only required at the first meal of the holiday, another says you should eat them at all four Rosh Hashanah meals; one says you can get the “benefit” of these foods only by eating them, while another says that you can fulfill the custom by merely gazing at them.

Depending on where you gather for Rosh Hashanah dinner, your meal might include anywhere from one to a dozen or more simanim, starting off simple and then spiraling into obscurity or ridiculousness. Each one of the foods is preceded by a piece of text: These do not quite require a blessing that would begin with a “baruch ata” (blessed are You), but instead, the blessing should start with “yehi ratzon” (May it be Your will that…) and then end with language particular to the food’s name or character.

Everyone knows the siman of serving an apple with honey. The eating of the apple and honey is preceded by a borei p’ri ha’etz, a blessing normally said over fruits of the tree, and then is finished off with a “yehi ratzon” — that we should have a good and sweet new year.

That one’s pretty simple. But with every year that passes, the puns proliferate. The carrot, or “gezer” in Hebrew, is a siman that any negative judgment (g’zar din) against us should be overturned. Beets in Hebrew are “selek,” related to the word for “depart,” which is what we wish our enemies would do.

A pomegranate indicates a wish for a year as full of good deeds as the fruit has seeds. A fish head is present, because “we should be as a head and not as a tail.” Another type of fish — often of the gefilte variety — represents the hope that we “multiply like fishes.” (Although this isn’t authorized by the rabbis, vegans may use Swedish fish.)

Simanim puns aren’t just for Hebrew anymore: Chef Jamie Geller notes on her website, The Joy of Kosher, that Jews in the Ukraine ate chicken livers on Rosh Hashanah because the Yiddish word for livers, leberlach, is homophonous with leb ehrlich, “live honestly.”

Enter the English puns:  A piece of celery, with raisins in the celery’s concave furrow, so that we all may experience a “raise in” your salary. Single? Eat pears, so that you find your pair, or sweet dates, so that your dates should be sweet. (And here we insert a disclaimer that these results may not be the actual results of eating simanim.)

The inclusion of simanim — and the wordplay around these edible wishes for a good new year — now occupy an important place: comic relief and an opportunity for fun amid the serious tone of the holidays that isn’t discouraged by the rabbis or other well-behaved adults as being not in the spirit of the Days of Awe.

So let’s let it ride. Let us have even more challah, in the hope that all our ideas will be fully baked. Let us have yams, because when Moses asked who was in the burning bush, God said, “I yam that I yam.” (Although it’s possible that was Popeye.) Let’s have fruit smoothies or prunes, so that our year runs both fruitful and smooth. Let’s eat walnuts (egozim), so that we may consume our egos instead of them consuming us.

Or maybe we should shred some cheese or carrots, so we can make America Grate Again. Or maybe elect them both, baking shredded cheese and carrots into an au gratin of sorts, because they’re Better Together.

Now please join me in the final siman: Everyone take a fig from the center plate and throw it across the room in a random direction. Then pick up one of the thrown figs and give it to someone else, promising that, no matter what happens this year, signs will still indicate that we do give a flying fig about one another.