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 simanim themselves 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.
Rabbi Yonah Bookstein is co-founder of Pico Shul, a dynamic and youthful 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.