It Would Seem I’m In For a Pretty Crappy Year

First night of yom tov, as we both begin to eat the delicious soup my mother served, that had leek in it, my father turns to me and asks, “Why do we eat leek on Rosh HaShana?”  Because I didn’t remember the reason ArtScroll gives, I went in a different direction.  “It’s a segula for prostate health.  You should have a year of good leaks.”  My father frowned at me; I said, “What?  It’s as good a connection as the ‘real’ reason.”  To which he could do nothing but agree.

You see, some of things we do/eat on Rosh HaShana have the most tenous of connections: “The word for … ‘Karsi,’ leeks or cabbage, sounds like the word ‘kares,’ ‘to cut off/destroy.’ We therefore say a Yehi Ratzon that asks ‘may… our enemies be destroyed.‘” (Source)  Are we really asking God to provide us with a blessing because we ate a food whose name in some language sounds like a word that you could use to maybe kind of connect to the bracha?  Is God a third-grade girl?  I mean, read the rest of them listed on that link or here, for instance.   Or, carrots, for instance.  I’ve heard explanation from the Hebrew (“Gezer = gzar din”) to the Yiddish (“mehrin = yirbu z’chuyot”) to the Shape (they look like coins.  Money!).

Come on.  Is this really what our religion is about?  Even a little bit?  This sounds more like voodoo than Judaism.  “Hey, you mean I can stick a pin in this doll eat the head of this fish, and hurt someone become the ‘head’ of something? Awesome.”

But people do these things, and theyare strict about them.  How many times have you heard that it’s bad to nap on Rosh HaShana?  Why?  Because it’s a sign for a sleepy year.  The thing about signs is you can interpret them however you want.  It won’t make me have a sleepy year, it’ll make me have a year of good naps!  I want good naps on shabbos.  (If my daughter wakes me up from said R”H nap, then I’m trouble.)

I mean, if this stuff is really true, then I’m in for a bad year.  That’s right, folks.  Cuz damn if I didn’t have one mother of a cold/ear infection this Rosh HaShana.  Sucks for me.  I won’t be able to hear a damn thing until next Rosh HaShana.  And the post-nasal drip, oy!  I’ll be coughing for a year!

Good thing I’m not buying into that.

Seriously, how do we reconcile a religion that teaches us that observing mitzvos and doing tshuva and davening to Hashem is the way to salvation with this talismanic crap?  We stand in shul and proclaim, at the emotional height of the davening, “U’Tshuva, U’Tefila, U’Tzedaka ma’averin et ro’a ha’g’zeira” (and repentance, prayer and charity will overturn the harshness of the decree), and then go home, and instead of tshuva, tefila or tzedaka, we dip an apple into honey and excoriate those that eat horseradish on their gefilte fish because we should have a sweet year.  As if God is watching, thinking “hmm, Shlomo was good last year.  He repented with real regret, he gave charity with compassion and I really sensed sincerity in his prayer.  I think I will inscribe him for a good year this year.  Wait!  What’s this?  Sharp horseradish?  Alas, poor Shlomo.  It is to be a spicy year for you, full of bitter hardship.”  Or “Noyam deserves punishment.  He writes blog posts that mock religion and its aherents and he doesn’t reserve the proper respect for such important things.  Ah, but he has eaten honey.  I have no choice but to inscribe him for the sweet year I had planned for poor Shlomo.”  Is this really what we expect? 

Why even bother with the mitzvot?  If God can be so easily swayed with symbolism and words that kinda sound alike, why not just spend the year eating honey and foods that have good sounding names.  Want to make money?  Eat Rich’s Whip.  Want a low golf score?  Eat a pear, it sounds like par.  Want a new job?  Eat the fruit for that “plum” placement!  Dislike Englishmen?  Eat a London Broil and see what happens to the weather over there!

And remember, no nuts!!  Because the hebrew word for one kind of nut (walnut), if spelled in a certain way, with an extra letter not normally used, is one away in gematria from the Hebrew word for sin (which, by the way is equal in gematria to the hebrew word for life…let that sink in for a second).  If there was ever a clear, divine edict to refrain from something, it’s nuts on Rosh HaShana!

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21 responses to “It Would Seem I’m In For a Pretty Crappy Year

  1. From the title, I was expecting to hear that you ate something bad and spent all of RH in the bathroom.

  2. I don’t like when people attribute too much to these minhagim but I think they should command a moticum of respect even if simply for the fact that they are long standing traditions (even if they are based on a cute gematria or word play). We keep traditions in our every day lives and attribute significance to them so why can’t traditions be part of religion too (as long as they are clearly noted as traditions and not halacha)?

    Hockey purests, for example, hate the shootout/new rules etc. b/c they violate the tradition of the game (although logic tells us that they make the game better). No MLB pitcher would step on the first baseline on the way into the dugout, players have pre-game routines, rally caps. We eat Turkey/sweet potato pie on Thanksgiving, Groundhogs Day makes no sense at all. People keep traditions and there’s something nice about doing something that your family or team or country has done for many generations even if it does not make logical sense. The problem is when people turn what I like to call “light” minhagim into halacha. As long as they are clearly noted as minhagim I see no problem in performing long-standing traditions.

  3. Rob,

    There is a simple yet essential disconnect in your argument: baseball, hockey, Thanksgiving meals…none of those are religion!! (Not to mention the fact that baseball players being superstitious isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the practice. You’ll get no argument from me if you want to say that the bulk of people are stupid. That doesn’t mean we have to go along with it.)

    The Rosh Hashana simnaim aren’t fun or nice or sentimental things that people do year to year. They are specificly instructed activities with the strange idea that they have mean something.

    Even within Judaism, I’m not talking about the Sefardi tradition of carrying a satchel of matza around the seder table, or of eating latkes on Chanuka, or other things that can be reasonably called “traditions” in the sense that they aren’t halachically mandated, but we do them because they are enjoyable or sentimental minhagim. I’m not talking about eating kreplach on Erev Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabba. I’m not talking about eating hametaschen on Purim. I’m not even talking about eating a new fruit on Rosh Hashana to symbolize a new year/legitimize the shehechiyanu we already said at kiddush. All of those are the type thing you refer to. And even so, the fact that you can only point to trivialties such as hockey rules or Thanksgiving menus as examples sort of proves my point. These are trivialities dressed up in religious clothing.

    And yet, the simanim of Rosh Hashana are different. These aren’t “traditions” they are things people do with the sincere belief that they have some sort of impact. When you eat a latke on Chanuka, do you add a yehi ratzon afterward? But you do (or are supposed to) when you eat a Pomegranite that has no connection to the holiday otherwise. These aren’t nice ideas handed down, they are specifically invented for this purpose. That’s what I have the problem with.

    I have no problem if people want to have a “long standing family tradition” of eating leek on Rosh Hashana. Plenty of people have certain food associations with certain holidays and there’s nothing wrong with it. But don’t make an “association” into a “minhag” and certainly don’t think that because the word leek sounds like something else you can turn it into a symbolic activity and associate a prayer with it. That’s going two steps too far.

  4. I don’t see any major distinction b/w latkes, hamintashin etc. and eating the simanim on R’H. The Yehi Ratzon is what has you all bent out of shape? People eat the simanim out of tradition and as a reminder or a way to note that RH is the time of year to ask God for a good year – plain and simple. You don’t have to do it al pi halacha but it’s a nice thing to do especially if it’s your family’s minhag.

    The reason I include the sports analogies is to point out that traditions are seen throughout our lives/cultures and I don’t see why they can’t be incorporated into our religion as well. I am not equating them (eating Turkey on Thanksgiving has less significance to me than do traditions incorporated into Judaism) but I see no harm in performing traditions that add, on some level, to the actual requirements of the day. So if someone eats hamintashin to get them into the spirit of Purim and it will help him prepare for giving mishloach manot or matanot l’evyonim or for remembering or teaching the Purim story to children – I see no harm. On the same level, if someone eats the simanim to add an additional way for him to show that Hashem is King and that Hashem is ultimately judging whether he will have a good year or not – Again, I see no harm.

  5. People eat the simanim out of tradition and as a reminder or a way to note that RH is the time of year to ask God for a good year

    I disagree. People eat the simanim because they think it means something.

    There wasn’t leek in my soup because of any special tradition, but because my other almost always puts leek in her soup because it gives it a great flavor.

    Whether or not there’s harm is something we’ve discussed before in similar contexts. You see no harm in the degradation and kindergardenization of Judaism. I do. Especially when people mistake the simanim for real tshuva.

  6. Hehe. Amen!

    We asked all our guests if they care if we had nuts; one did, so we left it out (not integral), though he was just doing it because it was his minhag. He found it as ridiculous as we did.

    We had apples, pomegranates, and for shehecheyanu, starfruit. That’s plenty for me.

    I think my father uses it as an excuse to eat fish head, because he likes it. That’s about it.

  7. Actually, my Rov specifically mentions that the simonim are only “springboards” to make the yehi ratzons. The important part is the tefilla, not the eating. After all, Judaism is not (or should not be) a religion of superstitions.

  8. I’m not a fan of segulos, but I read this in the new RYBS machzor over Rosh Hashana…

    “The Gemara in Horayos (12a) states that kings of Israel were anointed at a spring, as a portent that their reigns should be enduring in the same way that a spring continually brings forth water. Based on this concept, Abaye infers that omens in general can be significant and he therefore suggests that on Rosh Hashanah, one should eat specific foods whose designation imply good tidings for the coming year. The Rav explained that just as on the Seder night, there is a mitzvah to demonstrate that one has himself left Egypt, there is a similar imperative on Rosh Hashanah to demonstrate that Hashem is King over the entire world. Just as the environment in which a king is anointed should be symbolic of success and good fortune, on Rosh Hashanah we similarly engage in certain actions which are symbolic of a day on which we are judged by the King of the world. The mitzvah to show honor for the day (כבוד) on Shabbos and Yom Tov is fulfilled through actions such as bathing (prior to the onset of the holy day) and wearing clean garments. On Rosh Hashanah, this mitzvah includes a duty to symbolically demonstrate that the day is a day of judgment (Questions and Answers on Rosh Hashanah, September 25, 1978).”

  9. “I disagree. People eat the simanim because they think it means something.”

    It does mean something to them. It is a way of physically demonstrating that God is King – by eating something that symbolizes a sweet year etc. and saying the Yehi Ratzon you are reminding yourself that Hashem controls your destiny (which is the essence of RH) – just like some of the weird stuff people do at the seder reminds them of sipur yetzias mitzrayim (the essence of Pesach). If these reminders don’t work for you – don’t do them as there is certainly no halachik requirement to do so.

    “There wasn’t leek in my soup because of any special tradition, but because my other almost always puts leek in her soup because it gives it a great flavor.”

    This may be the case and good for you but others eat the simanim specifically for the reason I noted above.

    “Whether or not there’s harm is something we’ve discussed before in similar contexts. You see no harm in the degradation and kindergardenization of Judaism. I do. Especially when people mistake the simanim for real tshuva.”

    I don’t see this as “degradation and kindergardenization of Judaism” (and neither did the Remah and many other great achronim – see the discussion at DB) and if someone thinks that eating the simanim w/out internalizing the emotions I noted above is akin to real/complete teshuva then they are lost completely and are simply going through the motions. Same could be said for someone who spends thousands of dollars on fancy mishloach manot (including fancy hamintashin) and gives relatively little to matanot l’evyonim but you wouldn’t say that these mitzvot, generally, degrade judaism. For many people today chanukah is family party with latkes end of story. That doesn’t make the tradition of eating them stupid for the rest of us for whom chanukah is that much more.

  10. Noam,

    CWY mentions the fact that kings were annointed at a river bank. I believe this is one of the sources for tashlich i.e. going to a water source to highlight that Hashem is king. The fact that many people go primarily to socialize with their friends does not make tashlich a stupid tradition. It may demonstrate a lacking in us but not in the tradition.

  11. But it remains a tradition. And I think that Noam is saying that tradition becomes dangerous when it is revered as if it were halacha. So if a tradition means something to someone as much as the actual halacha does, the problem that evolves is that the religion being practiced is effectively changed.

    You write “I am not equating them (eating Turkey on Thanksgiving has less significance to me than do traditions incorporated into Judaism) but I see no harm in performing traditions that add, on some level, to the actual requirements of the day. So if someone eats hamintashin to get them into the spirit of Purim and it will help him prepare for giving mishloach manot or matanot l’evyonim or for remembering or teaching the Purim story to children – I see no harm.”

    I think that there’s a problem when individuals revere a tradition as much as the actual law, as is overwhelmingly the case in certain sects of Judaism today. If I were to create my own traditions along the lines as Noam pointed out, it could mean a lot to me and that would be fine. But if I were to consider a motivational (as you consider it) tradition as being on par with the halacha itself, I would be distorting the messages of the religion.

    So while there’s no harm in the tradition itself, the way that the tradition is carried out today (i.e. the emphasis on the tradition relative to the actual halacha) is a serious problem, in my opinion.

  12. I know noone who believes that eating the simanim on RH is required by halacha.

  13. Elisha – that’s fine, and it makes sense. But then why eat the foods at all? Why not just put those tefilos in the Machzor, make them part of Shemoneh Esreh? I think it’s reasonable to say the Yehi Ratzon’s that we say (the impact of tefilah is for another time), but why not make them part of the tefila?

    CWY – I don’t dispute that an essential theme of RH is Hashem=Melech. But how does eating leek so that our enemies are destroyed symbolize that? Things that we do during davening, like the Chazzan shacharis walking past the amud as though it were the heavenly palace, kneeling for Aleinu in mussaf, these make sense in connection with the theme. They are specific actions tied to the idea. I don’t see how eating honey ties into that. I can submit myself to God’s malchus, and I will feel subservient by bowing. This will have an impact on me. I can’t ensure a sweet year or do anything different because I dipped an apple into honey. At this point, doing so with the attendant yehi rotzon becomes a talisman. A magic charm. There ought not be such things in Judaism.

    Rob – Tashlich as annointing Hashem as melech? That’s new to me. I’m pretty sure the Tashlich service doesn’t include any sort of malchus declaration, just the 13 middos from Michah. And the reason we do it near water is because the quote from Michah includes the phrase “v’tashlish b’metzulot yam kol chatotam” (And You will cast into the depths of the sea
    all their sins). The more reasons you tack on, the more you lose sight of what you are actually doing. You are reciting the 13 middos begging God to cleanse you of your sins. Technically, you can do that at home.

    Mike – well said.

  14. Rob, I think your argument is clouded by a limited world view. You yourself have espoused the notion of “minhag yisrael torah” and “minhag yisrael k’din.” There are plenty of people who see these symbolic traditions as being essential to the practice of Judaism on Rosh Hashana. Just as one example, the story of the person who got yelled at for using Horseradish on Rosh Hashana. As if it really matters. Don’t tell me that there aren’t a whole lot of people who believe in these superstitions and think they are essential practices.

  15. Noyam,

    The theme of Shmoneh Esrei on Rosh Hashana (the middle) is the malchus of Hashem. Therefore, it seems “off-topic” or even inappropriate to insert prayers of a personal nature. We make no requests in the Rosh Hashana Shmoneh Esrei except as relates to the recognition and establishment of Hashem’s malchus.

    The next most obvious place to insert these prayers seems to be at the meal. After all, as with any Jewish holiday, it goes eat, sleep, daven, repeat. This then plays into the Gemoro CWY quoted, regarding symbols.

    The trick is not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. The essence of the practice is the prayer, not the symbol. The symbol is only a “neat trick” to remember the prayer. The problem becomes when we focus on the symbol as the end all and be all.

  16. Ah, Elisha, not exactly. The next most logical place to put it, in fact, is where we already do it: Avinu Malkeinu, right after Shmoneh Esreh.

    I will concede that at a time when people couldn’t remember things so well and there weren’t a lot of written books to help them, like the machzors we have now, then there is potential mnemonic value in using foods that sound like the words you are trying to remember. None of that applies today. And further, if you look at the custom, and the way it is referenced, it seems that what gets remembered is the food, and the yehi rotzon is tacked on.

    The very question: “why do we eat X on RH?” misses the point (unless the answer is, “to remind us to say the following yehi rotzon”). If the point you make is true, then people should be saying all the yehi ratzons whether we have the food or not. But the way it’s presented in the machzor is “this is the yehi ratzon that you say over this food” instead of “use this food to remind you to say this yehi ratzon.” It’s exactly this kind of flipping of priority that I (and Mike) are talking about, and have a problem with.

  17. Rob,

    I don’t know you nor do I know your background. But I wholeheartedly disagree with your assertion that tradition is viewed as nothing more than that. It may not be specifically with respect to simanim on rosh hashana but you would not have to dig deeper in the “frumer” communities to find people practising a Judaism in which many traditions are considered as integral as the law itself.

    Spend some time in the more chareidi or yeshivish communities and I feel confident that you will come to the same conclusion as me.

    Oh, the stories I could tell!

  18. Pingback: Forgiveness? « The Noy G Show

  19. Pingback: Segulah, Superstition and Backwards Thinking « The Noy G Show

  20. Awesome blog, where did you obtain the web theme?

  21. Pingback: This Is What I Meant | The Noy G Show

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