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Symbols Matter

One of the highlights of the Jewish calendar is the Rosh Hashana seder, where it is customary to eat some fun symbolic foods.

Dip the apple in the honey is a timeless classic with an iconic song for a sweet new year, and every community has countless others with puns and wordplay in every language, from bananas, beans, beets, dates, and fish; to leeks, pomegranates, pumpkins, and sometimes a whole lamb head.

What turns the simple food into a time-honored tradition is the small ritual or prayer that accompanies it: apples are sweet, so we wish for a sweet year. Pomegranates are full of seeds, so we wish to be full of good deeds. The head is where the brain is, so we pray to be leaders, not followers. French-speaking communities eat a banana – which they pronounce like “Bonne Année,” the French greeting for “Happy New Year.”

This all sounds like good-natured, light-hearted fun, and it is.

But it’s more than that too.

Our sages affirmed that symbolism matters – סימנא מלתא.

Symbolism plays an essential role in human culture. Through symbols, we find meaning in the physical world, which becomes transparent and reveals the transcendent. Certain symbols are cultural universals, primal archetypes intuitively understood that derive from the unconscious and require no explanation, like mother and child or light and darkness.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes – our ancestors’ history foreshadows and symbolizes a possible future  – מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that these symbols are meant to bring our thoughts and aspirations into the world of action. We dip the apple in the honey and sing and smile, but it actually functions as a placeholder for a universal blessing for a sweet new year.

When Israel’s prophets would warn the Jews of impending exile, they wouldn’t just talk about doom. They would also incorporate a symbolic visual representation of some kind, offering an experience of the prophecy through action and primary experience rather than mere words alone. When Jeremiah told of the burdens that lay ahead, he wore a cattle yoke; When Isaiah spoke about the people’s exposure and vulnerability, he walked around nearly naked. When Ezekiel spoke of the dirty and poor nutrition the Jewish People would experience, he baked a kind of inferior bread over human excrement. The action was not just an eccentric restatement of the message; it was a crucial part of their duty to warn.

These symbols initiate action in the external world, starting the process of realizing our thoughts, wishes, hopes, and dreams.

The apple and honey are staples at every Rosh Hashana table, accompanied by a prayer that the year ahead be good but also sweet. Because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet – תְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה.

Pomegranates are the next most popular symbol; they’re full of seeds, so we wish to be full of good deeds and merits. It’s not a request for artificial inflation; it’s a request for more opportunities to grow our merits, that they compound and mature like a well-managed investment portfolio.

Although probably not the most appetizing of symbols, some communities eat a small piece of a fish head or lamb head, with a wish to be among the heads and not the tails – שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב.

When looking at an animal, it may seem like the head and tail are the same, just a body length apart.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that, actually, although the tail can occupy the same physical space as the head, it can never occupy the same conceptual space because the head leads, and the tail only ever follows.

While we can’t control all the circumstances, variables, and people that are part of our lives, we always get to choose and exercise our free will. While we can’t choose to be happy, healthy, or successful, we can choose to take steps towards making those things more possible and likely.

In other words, all we can choose is what we choose.

If choices define you, and you are a passenger to someone else’s preferences, you are functionally their tail; floating with the current is not the same as swimming.

R’ Shimshon Pinkus explained it as a wish for a year that is intentional – לראש; with a forward state of becoming, with constant course corrections – שנהיה; because if your actions today are based on yesterday’s decisions, you end up being your own tail!

Symbols matter.

There is a good reason that these symbols are profoundly beloved and universally accepted in every Jewish home.

These symbols initiate action in the external world, starting the process of realizing our thoughts, wishes, hopes, and dreams.

Make sure you’re doing all you can to make them come true.