We Jews are very clear that we must not be superstitious, right? We avoid doing things without meaning. But of course, we have dozens of traditions, sometimes the meaning for which has been lost or broken along the millennia. One of the traditions that seems to have a backing in Halakhic sources is having certain foods on Rosh Hashanah that lend themselves to puns.
Here is what Rabbi Prero writes about it:
The Gemora in the tractate of 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 Gemora, it is a custom to eat these listed foods, as well as other foods, which represent good things. (We will soon explore how exactly these foods are representative of good things.) The issue that must first be addressed is why do we “indulge” in omens at the beginning of the year, on Rosh HaShana? As we will soon see, there are many, many different omens and customs. Why do we eat these foods on this occasion?
The goal of these omens is to act as a reminder. By eating all of these foods that have positive connotations, a person realizes that now is the time he needs to be asking for these good things, because now is the time he is being judged. As soon as the person realizes that now is the time that he is being judged, he will realize that omens alone will not be enough for his salvation, and that repentance is needed. Therefore, eating these omens, which are a reminder that now is the time for repentance, is extremely appropriate for Rosh HaShana.
Okay, that works a little. But is there anything else that addresses my discomfort with picking up more symbolism that could have other than Jewish roots?
I found a great article “Simanim of Rosh HaShanah; Symbolism or Semantics?” by Leor Jacobi that addresses my questions nicely. From the article:
The first record we have of consumption of special foods on Rosh HaShanah is in the Book of Nechemiah (8:1–15). In a public gathering, Ezra HaSofer read from a Torah scroll before the Jewish people, who, upon realizing that they had not been following the Torah properly, began to cry. Nechemiah told them not to be sad on the holy day, but rather, “Eat fatty meats and drink sweet drinks and send portions for those who don’t have any prepared.” Several Rishonim quote a responsum from the time of the Geonim that cites this verse as the source for eating sweet foods on Rosh HaShanah. In addition to eating rich and sweet foods, the practice of eating the head of a sheep (or ram) is also mentioned in that responsum. The head itself is symbolic of greater success and victory, of being “number one.” Many examples of this symbolism are found in Tanach and in Chazal.Clearly, the rich, fatty meats and sweet delicacies are symbolic of our joy and hopes for the coming year, expressed through eating them. The names of the foods are not important — their essence is.
In a gemara regarding omens (if you see this, such and such will happen), Abaye says: “Now that you have said that an omen is a significant thing, a person should always be accustomed to see at the beginning of the year kara [squash], rubia [blackeyed peas, according to many], karti [leek], silka [beet greens], and tamri [dates].”Why were these five species selected? According to Rashi, they were selected because they either grow fast or are sweet. It would seem Rashi understands that Abaye’s foods were chosen for their symbolism. Furthermore, as noted by Pri Chadash, according to Rashi, there is no requirement to utter any recitation at all, but simply to consume the simanim. According to Rav Hai Gaon, however, these species were not selected because of their special properties, but because of their names. Each name suggests a desired result for the coming year. Rav Hai Gaon would hold each siman and recite its name and its interpretation — which we continue to do to this day, in the expanded form of short prayers. Rav Hai Gaon considers Abaye’s simanim to be semantic, not symbolic; the wordplay is the essence of the simanim, not their taste or their qualities.The Eastern European custom of eating carrots and turnips as a substitute for rubia is based on Rav Hai’s approach. In Yiddish, carrots are called meren, which also means “to make more.” Turnips are called ribin, which sounds like rubia (upon which we recite sheyirbu zechuyoseinu). The names of these vegetables therefore suggest the same results — to increase our merits.The Geonim defended the minhag of simanim, insisting their customs were minhag chachamim, not something that simple people began as superstition. They point out that the desired effect of the simanim is for the good, a siman tov, as opposed to a typical nachash (black magic incantation), which is used to cause bad things to happen.In his mussar sefer, Chibbur HaTeshuvah, the Meiri expands on his view, explaining that the words simana milsa hi in the Gemara do not mean that omens tell or affect the future, but that symbolic actions have the power to inspire us to do teshuvah, even in the absence of formal prayers or study. The idea is to have the simanim on the table while consuming the seudah, and one must see the simanim in the spirit of “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi somid.” This reminds us to control our lustful appetites and not forget the gravity of Yom HaDin.…May we merit to have the simanim — both semantic and symbolic — stand us in good stead, and herald a truly sweet, happy, healthy, and sin-free new year.