Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Heads or Tails? Food for Thought

Guest Post by Netanel Gertner
During the course of the Rosh HaShana evening meals, there is a universal custom to consume the Simanim. Customs widely vary about what they are, from classic apple and honey, to the more exotic fish or lamb head, and everything in between. A small prayer is said, that contains some sort of pun or word play, based on what is being eaten. Apples are sweet, so we ask for a “sweet” year. We ask to be “heads not “tails. You can even make up your own – some French people eat bananas – which sounds like “Bonne Année”, the French greeting for “Happy New Year”.
These seem quite tenuous, and possibly silly. But the Gemara states that סימנא מלתא – it’s a legitimate endeavour. A Siman is an indicator that portends things to come. One maxim has it that מעשה אבות סימן לבנים – an ancestors actions indicate a possible future for descendants.
The Simanim on Rosh HaShana are not games. They make an impression, and indicate more than the words we say. Our speech and thoughts have already started to take shape in form of activity. When the prophets would warn the Jews of impending exile, they would lead an animal, and whip it, and the animal would run away. The prophet would say that in the same way, they would be exiled. It was not merely a restatement of his words; it was tangible action, that actualised what he was saying.
Talk is cheap. Note how many mitzvos have a symbolic action, concurrent to prayer. The Simanim are indicators that initiate action on our parts to actualise what we want.
Consider the apple, which is a staple of Rosh HaShana. The prayer we say is שתחדש עלינו שנה טובה ומתוקה – may the year ahead be good and sweet. Because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet.
The word שנה, year, has the same roots as the words for secondary, and change. The way to another שנה is through שינוי – change. The most incredible thing we can ask for is a fresh start, a clean page – שתחדש. Retracing steps, something new on top of something old, isn’t progress. A drawing that is erased still leaves the paper smudged. We don’t ask for another year, but a “new” year. New year, new you.
We don’t have to deal with old problems; we can start again. There can and should be a reality check; a paradigm shift. What am I about? Where am I going? We say שתחדש with the apple in our hands. Instead of bringing old baggage, we should realise the choice is literally in our hands. We are already doing something.
There is a variation in custom on what food to consume when saying שנהיה לראש ולא לזנב – may we be heads not tails.
When looking at an animal, it may seem like they are essentially the same, the tail is just a body length behind. They ultimately get to the same place, so what’s the difference? To get there first?
Rabbi Shlomo Farhi suggests that actually, the tail never gets to where the head is. The head leads, and the tail follows. The tail is never where it wants to be, because it is slaved to the head. It can’t “want” anything!
We control very little in the variable and circumstances that make up our lives. What we do have control over is free will. In fact, at their core, all people truly are is the sum of all the decisions they’ve ever made. You can’t choose to be rich, or healthy. You can only choose to take steps that make it more possible. In other words, all you can choose is to choose.
If all you can do is choose, and you’re a tail, you’re nothing. By following other people, or letting others make your decisions for you, you’re a tail. Floating with the current is not the same as swimming. The tails seems like it gets to where head is, but it is only cosmetic.
Rav Shimshon Pinkus defines the prayer as לראש – let the year ahead be thought through, with mental input and striving higher; in the future tense, שנהיה – always looking forward; because if your actions today are based on yesterday’s decisions, you are your own זנב!

about the author

Netanel Gertner learns in Yeshivas  Mir Yerushalayim and has posted here before. He studied at Hasmonian in London and describes his Hashkafos as moderate Charedi  influenced by Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch and Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He also posts Divrei Torah on his own website. You can sign up for his weekly email at