The power of puns and signs


The Talmud states: “We anoint kings next to a spring of water so that their kingship should continue to give forth like a spring…” Rabbi Ammi said, “If one is about to engage in business and wishes to know whether he will succeed or not, let him get a rooster and feed it; if it grows fat and handsome, he will know that he will succeed.” But it is not proper to perform these tests, for one might become discouraged (if the sign is negative) and mar his fortune. Abaye said, “Since you hold that symbols are meaningful, every person should make it a habit at the beginning of the New Year to eat pumpkin, fenugreek, leek, beet and dates (Keritot 5b).”

On Rosh Hashanah we follow Abaye’s statement by making a pun out of the names of each of the vegetables enumerated as we eat them on Rosh Hashanah eve. For instance the Hebrew word for pumpkin is kra. The word kra sounds like the word kara which means to tear. And so, on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, based on the above piece of Talmud, many hold up a piece of pumpkin and declare, “may it be Your will to (kra) tear all those who persecute us”. Some eat a carrot which is called in Hebrew ‘gezer’. The Hebrew word gezer sounds like the word gizerah meaning decree. Holding up the carrot we say, “May it be Your will that our decree be a sweet one.” In fact, my high school Bible teacher Rabbi Avi Shafran, remarked that it would even be in consonance with the spirit of these signs, to make up new puns. For instance to hold up a raisin and a piece of celery and say, “May it be your will to give us a raise-in-salary.”

Though they are cute puns on the Hebrew words for these vegetables the practice seems overall perplexing, if not superstitious. Indeed, we see that the Talmud did not seem so sure this was a good idea, and worried that, far from being a sure sign, they may depress us if the result is negative. Yet the custom to do these sins and declarations is quite widespread and even quoted as being a good custom in the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. More perplexing is the fact that Maimonides’ code of Jewish law seems opposed to such things: “One may not divine (try to tell the future) like the idol worshipers do. Like those who say since my piece of bread that I was eating fell out of my mouth I will not travel to such and such place today, for if I go it won’t work out. …so too one who creates signs for themselves saying if such and such happens I will do thus or not do thus (Laws of Idol Worship 11:4).”

The Sefat Emet gives an interesting explanation for these customs. He writes, based on the Zohar that Rosh Hashanah is solely a time for making God sovereign, yet we want to ask for things we need to serve God, things of this physical world. Thus we do so in a very round-about way utilizing mere hints. These signs are not superstition but a way of praying with out direct requests, essentially a prayer with out praying. In this way we can be the physical humans we must and at the same time focus on something much higher, God’s infinite sovereignty on Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham prepared this week’s Torah Portion.