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Rosh Hashana 2011: Heads and Tails

We are taught that we eat the head of a fish so as to enter the year on a positive note, rather than a tail, which would suggest a year of inferior quality. How is this different from sticking pins into a doll and hoping that my belligerent boss winds up dead as a result?

Judaism promotes itself as a religion (or rather, the religion) of reality. So what’s up with this apparent hocus pocus of simanei milsa (“signs are significant”)?

Suppose it’s your anniversary and you’re intent on making a show for your wife — what sort of gift do you get her? Most would get flowers, some chocolate and others perhaps jewelry. But suppose you get your wife a pastrami sandwich. What would she think of that?

Along with the good anniversary wishes, the flowers and/or chocolate express to your loved one the romanticism and/or sweetness that your loving message carries. I think pastrami is delicious, but for whatever psychosocial reasons, it just doesn’t exhibit the same message as a heart-shaped card and a bag of Hershey Kisses.

The Sages of yore developed a bunch of formulae that express our good wishes for the new year — our year should be as full of merits as a pomegranate is full of seeds. My daughter asked why we don’t eat watermelon on Rosh Hashana because they also have lots of seeds. After calling her out because it’s clear that watermelons don’t have nearly the seed density that pomegranates have, I thought about her suggestion. One cannot say that the Sages were unaware of melons, for the Torah specifically recalls the melons of Egypt (Number 11:5). Perhaps melons were not as plentiful when these formulae were written. Or, perhaps it’s that pomegranates were seen exotic and glamorous while melons, like pastrami sandwiches, are not.

So are signs significant? The formulae are important — we look at them like mini-prayers and we are merely taking the leek, the carrot or the fish head to drive the message home. Dipping the apple in the honey without having the message in mind in like buying your girlfriend flowers and sending her the bill — tactless and ultimately self-defeating.

For more on Rosh Hashana, see 4torah.com.

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Phil September 28, 2011, 1:21 PM

    I agree. The gifts we give our loved ones should be practical. If what they want is a pastrami sandwich that is what you should give them. Just make sure that is what they want and not what you want. Remember if what they want is flowers and/or chocolate then that might be practical. Have a great and healthy New Year for you and your extended family.

    • Susan September 28, 2011, 3:32 PM

      I agree as well.

      • DRosenbach October 1, 2011, 5:36 PM

        Symbols benefit from generalization — flowers are generally more acceptable than pastrami sandwiches as an anniversary gift, and that was the point.

        If you’re applying for a construction job, you might not wear a suit to your interview — but generalizing in respect to, say, a university interview, the interview will generally be more well perceived wearing a suit, even though he’ll wear jeans tomorrow if he gets in.

        Thanks for reading, all!

  • Woodrow October 1, 2011, 10:05 PM

    I prefer to think of the whole matter as a nice excuse to eat fish heads, and to sing my favorite Rosh Hashanah piyyut-


    Eat them up, yum!

    • DRosenbach October 2, 2011, 9:27 AM

      But that doesn’t even begin to investigate what it is we do and why we do it, something I like to focus on here at FrumSatire.

      If Judaism seemingly instructs you to eat fish heads because it will make for a good year but shuns palm reading because of its absurdity, where is the balance in that?

      • Phil October 2, 2011, 3:19 PM

        I agree 100%. Thanks for stating what to me is obvious.

        • DRosenbach October 2, 2011, 4:17 PM

          I generally write for those for whom Judaism poses profound philosophical conundrums because of perceived inconsistencies based on the distorted anecdotal Judaism of their youths, but if you’re cool, that’s great!

          • Phil October 3, 2011, 6:41 AM

            To state another example; During Havdala this Saturday evening a small boy of 5 or so was going to hold the candle and someone standing close by stated to hold it streight and high so you will have a tall wife. Why could’t the person state hold the candle high so all the people could see it.

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