Media Room
Making Sense of Simanim

by Rabbi Binyamin Miller, Educational Coordinator of the Alisa Flatow International Program

We have a lot of strange customs that are ancient cornerstones of this time of year.  We wave chickens, whack willows and on the first meal of the year we eat a lot of very very strange foods.
Normally, when it comes to explaining why we eat traditional foods, I would be inclined to answer that we eat them because they taste good.  While this answer is true in addressing jelly donuts on Channuka and cheese cake on Shavuot, it simply doesn't suffice to explain why we eat leeks, gourds, beets and animal heads on Rosh Hashana.  In fact, if I was told to choose the foods I would be least interested in eating on chag, it would be a very similar list to the simanim menu (apologies to all fenugreek enthusiasts out there).
To make sense out of simanim and turn this ancient (from Gemara Horiyot 12a) but tasteless (pun intended) custom into a little more palatable one, I will present two approaches: one from the Rationalists and one from the Kabbalists.
Representing the Rationalists we have Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249 – 1310) and in the other corner we have the great Maharal of Prague (1520 -1609), two captains and giants of their respective teams.
The Meiri, in his commentary on the Gemara in Horiyot 12a, explains the following:  He begins by saying that we find multiple times where the Rabbi's allowed us to perform symbolic acts with no concern that we are committing the Biblical prohibition of superstition (Vay 19:26).  The clear implication is that the Meiri is okay with this custom though probably doesn't view it as the be all and end all of the Rosh Hashana experience.  He continues to explain that the idea is that we do a physical act which is intended to provide us with internal inspiration and focus.  We eat these strange foods and in doing so think of various exalted things like teshuva, having a sweet year and beseeching G-d for a divine smile as our year begins. He adds that the yehi ratzons were added over time because people started missing the point. To sum up the Meiri says simanim are a valid means to a powerful goal of helping us focus on what's really important on Rosh Hashana. 
The Maharal says something of a totally different nature.  Based on the Ramban's famous concept of maaseh avot siman l'banim the Maharal establishes a powerful philosophical basis for understanding the custom of simanim. He says all Divine decrees that G-d bestows on this world remain in a potential state until we do a physical act to concratize and capture their energy. The transition from potential to actual depends on a human physical act.  We eat the simanim on Rosh Hashana as a physical action to capture and capitalize on the Divine energy that is coming into the world as the year begins. The Maharal understands the eating itself as the goal and would even perhaps say the yehi ratzons are secondary to the eating of the simanim (my own addition).  
May whichever path we choose in relating to the simanim of Rosh Hashana bring us closer to actualizing and achieving our personal and national missions as we set out on the exciting  journey of this new year.  
Shana Tova!