Sep 18

Significant omens

If the thought of Rosh Hashanah meals evokes visions of apples and honey, kugels and tzimmes—a sweet concoction of carrots, prunes and honey—this is notice that times have changed. Over the past several decades, the tradition of eating significant omens (simanim in Hebrew) on Rosh Hashanah night has become increasingly widespread.

RimonThe custom of simanim is rooted in Talmudic tradition. The Gemara in mesechta Kerisus (6a) states: “Abaye said ‘Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets and dates…’ ” Because of this Gemara, it is a custom to eat these foods and recite a brief prayer alluding to the symbolism of each food based on its Hebrew name.

Many people are already familiar with the Rosh Hashanah custom to eat round challahs—the special Shabbat and holiday bread—and to dip the challah and apples in honey at the beginning of the meal. The round shape of the challah symbolizes a perfect year to come. Upon eating the apple and honey, we ask that we be renewed for a good and sweet year.

Apparently, through the ages, the custom of eating the significant omens listed in the Gemara fell into disuse among Jews of Ashkenazic (Eastern European) origin. Many Jews of Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) and Middle Eastern descent, however, carried on this ancient custom with foods specific to the countries in which they lived. In recent times, the custom of simanim has experienced a revival and the special blessings can be found in many Rosh Hashanah prayer books. In my own family, the simanim are a cherished and eagerly anticipated part of the meal.

Here is a list of the commonly used simanim and the prayer associated with each. These simanim are eaten immediately after the apples and honey.

  • Fenugreek, carrots or black-eyed peas: that our merits be increased. (The Yiddish word for carrots is meren, which also means “increase.”)
  • Leek or cabbage: that our enemies be decimated.

  • Beets or chard: that our adversaries be removed
  • Dates:  that our enemies be consumed.
  • Gourd or pumpkin:  that the bad decree of our sentence be torn asunder and that our merits be proclaimed before G-d.
  • Pomegranate: that our merits increase as the seeds of a pomegranate.
  • Fish: that we be fruitful and multiply like fish.
  • Head of a sheep or fish: that we be as the head and not as the tail.

If you are making simanim for the first time, here are some recipes to help you out: *

Leek Patties

2 large leeks
1 medium onion
2 medium or 1 large egg
1/4 – 1/3 cup matzoh meal, flour or potato starch
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper, or to taste
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
Olive and/or canola oil for frying

LeeksCut off the tops and ends of the leeks and remove the outer skin. Slice lengthwise halfway through each leek, then cut each leek into 3-inch lengths. Open the lengths and rinse each layer of skin to wash off any bugs.

Boil the leeks in a covered pot until they begin to soften—about 15-20 minutes. Let cool and drain.

Place leeks and onions in a food processor and pulse until they are minced. Add eggs, matzoh meal, salt and spices according to taste, and pulse again until well mixed. Mixture should be slightly firm, but not stiff. If it is too runny, add a little more matzoh meal or flour.

Heat oil in a non-stick frying pan, drop in the leek batter in small rounds, and fry pancake style over medium heat on both sides until brown. Place the fried patties on paper towels to absorb the oil.

Chard Fritada

Although I make cooked, sweet beets for the simanim, I also make this recipe. Double the pleasure!

4 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup matzoh meal, or 1/4 cup flour or potato flour (or as needed)
1 pound fresh chard, coarsley chopped
1 small to medium onion, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 teaspoon each salt and pepper, or to taste
Oil for frying

Combine all ingredients, except for oil. Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a frying pan. Add half the batter. Fry until the fritada is brown on one side, then turn over, using a plate to assist you, and fry until brown on the other side. Repeat with remaining batter. Slice into wedges to serve.

Chard Patties

Combine the above ingredients, except for oil, in a food processor and pulse until the chard is minced and the ingredients are well mixed. Heat a small amount of oil in a frying pan, drop in the batter in small rounds, and fry pancake style over medium heat on both sides until golden. Place the fried patties on paper towels to absorb the oil.

Pumpkin Muffins

2 cups flour (spelt or whole wheat)
1/2 cup brown or demerara sugar
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup boiled, mashed pumpkin
1 egg
1/2 cup milk or soy milk
1/4 cup oil

Mix dry ingredients together. Add egg, milk, oil and pumpkin and mix well. Bake in greased and floured muffin tins in preheated 350° F oven (180° C) for 20-25 minutes or until done. If you are making mini muffins, check if done after 15 minutes.

Makes 12-13 regular muffins or 24 mini muffins.

* Leeks and chard may contain insects. Consult your rabbi for the best way to check these items for infestation.