You know the drill:
Dip the apple in the honey,
Pass the fish (head),
carrots (possibly cut in circle ‘coin’ shapes),
leek (yum!) and/or fenugreek (huh?),
beets and pomegranate seeds (may your dry cleaner have a good year),
black-eyed peas (Persians, perhaps other sephardim as well?),
kubbeh (remind me to talk more about this one some time)…
Yes, it’s Rosh HaShanah! Forget the shofar, it's time for the “other” Seder, when we eat all sorts of odd foods as a sign for a sweet new year.
It all began with Abayye, who said (Horiyyot 12a), “Since we say that signs are substantive (סימנא מילתא היא), one should accustom himself to see gourds and fenugreek, leek, beets and dates at the start of the year.”
Other editions have “to eat” in place of “to see,” a point worthy of its own discussion, but I have a point I’m trying to get to here: The Torah says (Vayyikra 19:26) לא תנחשו, You shall not rely on omens. The gemara (Chullin 95b) seems to define nichush as relying on omens to determine future action. If so, what are we doing with these weird food omens on Rosh HaShanah?
I have seen four different approaches to this:
1) Rav Natronai Gaon, some 1100 years ago, wrote, “This is a good reading of omens, and sages and most of Babylon are accustomed to do this.” That’s it. This is good nichush – נחש לטובה, as he put it. I don’t really understand this.
2) We could offer a second answer, based on Tosafot (13th century) to Chullin 95b. The gemara there uses Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, to provide an example of nichush. Eliezer is supposed to go to Avraham’s family, to find a wife for Yitzchak – but, instead, he comes to a well and declares that the right girl will be the one who offers water for him and for his camels. This is nichush – offering water is not relevant to the task at hand of finding Avraham's family.
Tosafot asks how Eliezer could do this, according to the view that this prohibition against nichush applies to non-Jewish Noachides as well. Tosafot answers that it was acceptable because Eliezer didn't rely on this to affect his actions; he didn't give Rivkah the jewelry until he knew she was family.
Tosafot’s answer works for us, too. We don’t eat apples and honey and then decide we don’t need to daven, or do teshuvah (repent). It’s just a nice symbol. (This may also be what Maharsha means in Horiyyot?)
3) Or Zarua and Raavyah, writing about 900 years ago, explain that our apples-and-honey fetish isn’t really about an omen, after all. Rather, it’s an association with Tanach, meant to put us in a good frame of mind for Rosh HaShanah.
Specifically, sweet foods call forth Ezra’s positive Rosh HaShanah message of forgiveness to the Jews who returned for the second Beit haMikdash. Ezra declared (Nechemiah 8:10), “Go and eat fatty foods and drink sweet drinks, and send portions to those who have none prepared, for today is sacred for our Gd. Do not be sad, for the joy of Gd is your strength.”
The only problem I have with this excellent explanation is that it doesn’t suit Abbaye’s wording in Horiyyot.
4) Finally, and – to me – most simply, the answer is that this is not called “superstition” because it is effective, in some mystical way.
The Sefer Chasidim writes as much in a different context, explaining why ערסא דגדא isn’t nichush, in #458. The Maharal writes it in Beer haGolah, volume 2 (pg. 33 in my edition).
Why should these foods be effective?
Take a look at the words of Ramban in Bereishit 12:6 – “Know that all of the decrees of Above become irreversibly enduring once they cease being decrees and become active and visible…And therefore Gd had Avraham begin to take control of Israel, and He made Avraham model all that would happen with his descendants.”
So by eating sweet foods, we begin to have a sweet year – and thus the year must continue to be sweet. May it be a sweet year for everyone!