Ask the Rabbi, Part 15

For almost two years, I have participated in an “Ask the Rabbi” panel responding to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. Here is the latest installment. This column, including the responses of my colleagues, can be read at

How much significance should we place in eating the simanim foods and saying Yehi Ratzon on Rosh Hashana?  

This is not a trivial matter, as it based on an explicit recommendation of the Gemara (Masechet Kreitot 6a) and recorded in the Shulchan Aruch (583:1). Nonetheless, it should not be consigned to the realm of magic and mysticism, as if to say “eat these foods, recites these mantras and G-d will be fooled by your newfound piety.” That is not at all what this practice signifies.

When the Gemara states “simana milta” – that signs are matters of substance – it means that eating these foods on Rosh Hashanah are vivid reminders of the kedushat hayom, the unique holiness of Rosh Hashanah that is defined by din, judgment. We are quite conscious that at this time we are sitting in the dock and being judged by the King of Kings. Our future hangs in the balance.

It is not the eating of the foods or the recitation of the accompanying prayers that facilitate a good judgment. Rather, it is that eating these particular foods that allude, sometimes clearly and sometimes obliquely, to the various judgments that await us will be catalysts for our teshuvah, repentance, and our return to G-d. And the prayers cause us to focus on what is really important and what we most desire in life.

People err when they think that eating gourds, leeks, fenugreek or beets without sincere repentance can somehow influence G-d and change our fate. If we have not yet developed a taste for fenugreek, so be it. The essential point is that what we eat on the night of Rosh Hashanah (some say both nights) should inspire our sincere repentance. In effect, it is akin to the Pesach Seder, on which we also eat certain foods to evoke critical remembrances. This too is substantive, and understood properly, an important part of the Rosh Hashanah experience.

Is it proper to eat the meat of animals that were not treated humanely?   

It is hard to imagine anyone feeling comfortable sitting down at a table, reciting a berachah and proceeding to eat the meat of an animal that was treated inhumanely. And to the extent that animals are mistreated – raised in cramped quarters, overfed and force fed, with an existence that is nasty, brutish and short – elementary sensitivity and respect for G-d’s creatures should cause us to recoil from such consumption.

That being said, it is important to distinguish between maltreatment and other aspects of the processing of food that radical activists term “inhumane” but in fact is not. The classic example is shechitah which is falsely termed “inhumane” by activists opposed to the use of animals for food. This banner has been waved all too frequently and hypocritically by Jew haters across the world for well over a century, embraced by the Nazis and other Jew-hating governments in Europe and now has been reborn in several European countries as well.

Their insistence that animals need to be anesthetized or electronically stunned before being slaughtered is an ill-disguised anti-Jewish measure, an attempt to compel Jews either to violate halachah or emigrate. In the not-too-distant past, many of the societies that were exquisitely sensitive to the treatment of animals were often quite callous and sadistic to their resident Jews.

We should be leery of the motives of the activists. By the same token, we should be assiduous in doing our part in eliminating genuine mistreatment of animals and think twice about eating the meat of animals that we know are being treated inhumanely just for our pleasure.

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