Food Omens on Rosh Hashannah

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In a Talmudic debate of the efficacy of omens (Horayos 12a; Kereisos 6a) the conclusion was that omens do carry some significance. If so, Abaye (as interpreted by Maharsha) said that it is appropriate for an individual to attempt to create a good omen. Along this theme, the Talmud continued, “A person should always be accustomed to see (Horayos 12a) or to eat (Kereisos 6a) on Rosh Hashanah a gourd, fenugreek, leek, beets, and dates.” Rashi explained that these agricultural products either grow rapidly or taste sweet and, thus, are omens for a year of  abundance of mazal and of sweetness. In addition to the above-noted items, other symbolic foods are an apple dipped in honey, carrots (in place of fenugreek), cabbage (in place of leek), pomegranate, fish, and the head either of a fish or of a sheep. This article will focus on the lesser known symbols - fish, leek, fenugreek, cucumber (type of gourd), and beet [Artscroll Machzor Rosh HaShannah, 1988). Of these items, small fish, cucumbers, and leeks were items that B’nei Yisrael complained that they lacked when traveling through the desert on their trek to Eretz Yisrael; “We remember the fish that we would eat in Egypt free of charge; the cucumbers and the melons (Rashi: watermelons), the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Bamidbar 11:5). Interestingly, thousands of years later, Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (i.e., the ”Jewish Marco  Polo”) arrived in Cairo and noted, “The only inexpensive foods I saw in Cairo were fish from the Nile, onions, leeks, cucumbers, melons, and vegetables” [Shulman 1992]. Apparently, the Egyptian agricultural economy remained stagnant from when B’nei Yisroel was enslaved in Egypt to the Bartenura’s visit in 1490.


Fish


Before partaking fish, the following is recited, “May it be Your will, HaShem, our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors, that we be fruitful and multiply as fish.” Fish dwell under the water and, as such, are immune from the Evil Eye, which has no power over that which is hidden from the eye. Thus, the eating of fish is symbolic that we should be protected from the Evil Eye (Artscroll, 1988).    


Health benefits from the consumption of fish were noted in the Talmud. Those who regularly eat small fish do not suffer from intestinal disorders. Fish consumption strengthens the entire body (Berachos 20a), serves as an aphrodisiac (Berachos 40a), and facilitates a patient’s recovery from an illness (Berachos 57b; Sanhedrin 98a).  The American Heart Association also recognized health benefits from fish consumption and recommended eating fish at least two times per week. Fish are high in protein and low in fat, are rich in calcium, phosphorus, minerals, such as iron, zinc, iodine, potassium, and magnesium, vitamins D and B2, and omega-3 fatty acids. The omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, are particularly beneficial, as they lower blood pressure and help reduce the risk of a heart attack, of abnormal heart rhythms, and of a stroke. In addition, these fatty acids promote healthy brain function, decrease the risk of depression, of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, of Alzheimer’s disease, and of dementia, and reduce the risk of diabetes and of arthritis by preventing inflammation  [Washington State Department of Health].


Leek


The phrase, “May it be Your will, HaShem, our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors, that our enemies be consumed,” is recited.


Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum (L.), onions (Allium cepa), and garlic (Allium sativum) are botanically related (Nedarim 58b), and belong to the family Amaryllidaceae. However, as garlic and onions can be stored, they are subject to the obligation of pe’ah.  Leeks, and other such vegetables, cannot be stored and are not subject to pe’ah (Rashi, Shabbos 68a). A commonality in these three agricultural species is that they promote good health (Eruvin 56a), related, in part, to their large quantities of organosulfur molecules. Thus, many of the health benefits of one species are applicable to the others.


Dried specimens of leeks were discovered in archaeological sites dating to ancient Egypt, as well as noted in wall carvings and drawings, indicating that leeks were part of the ancient Egyptian diet [Wikipedia]. Leeks were recommended for patients with chronic fever (Gittin 67b) and jaundice (Shabbos 109b, 110a). A molecule with both anti-inflammatory property [Adao et al., 2011] and immunologic-stimulating activity [Adao et al., 2012] was recently identified in leek bulbs; leaves of leek exhibit antibacterial activity [Alamri and Moustafa, 2012]. These biomedical properties of leek may explain the Talmudic recommendation of leek consumption to treat chronic fever, especially that due to microbial infection.


Cucumber


Gourd, one of the symbolic vegetables eaten on Rosh HaShannah, encompasses varieties of herbaceous tendril-bearing vines of the botanical family, Cucurbitaceae, including cucumber, melon, watermelon, squash, and pumpkin. Before eating a gourd the following phrase is said: “May it be Your will, HaShem, our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors, that the decree of our sentence be torn asunder and may our merits be proclaimed before You.”


When B’nei Yisrael traveled through the desert in their march towards Eretz Yisrael, HaShem provided daily sustenance through the manna, which took on the taste of whatever food the person desired to eat and its color was similar to that of a crystal (Rashi, Bamidbar 11:7).  The physical appearance of manna was unchanging and part of the complaint of B’nei Yisrael to Moishe was based on the monotony of always visualizing the same food (Sifrei 89). B’nei Yisroel may have craved brightly colorful watermelons, with their green exteriors and bright red interiors, and green cucumbers, with their white or yellow interiors. In addition, the desert was hot and dry and the thought of munching juicy, thirst quenching watermelon and cucumber was very tempting.


Mention of cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) is peppered throughout the Talmud. Cucumbers are subject to tithes (Maasros 1:4) and terumah (Terumos 1:3) and care must be taken that the individual did not inadvertently designate bitter cucumbers, which are inedible, as terumah (Terumos 1:3).  Differential health effects were attributed to the consumption of small, as compared to large, cucumbers. The consumption of large cucumbers was said “to return a sick person to his sickness,” with the recalcitrant illness being more severe. Rav Yishmael taught, “why are (large) cucumbers called “kishuim?”, because they are as severe (kashim) to the body, as are swords. Conversely, the consumption of small cucumbers promotes good health. Cucumbers cause the intestines to expand, thereby facilitating digestive processes (Avodah Zarah 11a; Berachos 57b). The Rambam wrote that cucumbers are easily digested, relaxed the stomach, and promoted the easy intestinal elimination of metabolic wastes [Shaouli and Fisher, 1999]. The later health benefit was probably attributed to their high fiber content. Today, it is known that the ingestion of vegetables, cucumbers in particular, reduce the risk of gastric cancer [Graham et al., 1990]. The Talmud lauded the presence of small cucumbers at the dinner table. When describing the wealth of Antoninus and Rebbi (Rabbi Yehudah the Prince), it noted that both individuals had lavish amounts of food, including small cucumbers, to serve guests at their table. Their extreme wealth was exemplified by their affording seasonal produce, such as cucumbers, all year around (Maharsha).


In Talmudic times, care was taken to avoid cucumbers that were left uncovered, as a snake may have bit and deposited venom inside the vegetable (Avodah Zarah 30b). A similar rationale was applied to avoiding cucumbers with tiny external holes, as use these punctures possibly were made by a venomous snake (Chullin 94a). Today’s problem of consuming bug-infested vegetables is not a recent halachic issue. In the time of the Talmud, the prohibition of consuming sheratzim in vegetables directed consumers to carefully check cucumbers for worms (Chullin 58b).


Cucumbers are a valuable source of vitamin C and beta-carotene and are rich in the flavonoid antioxidants, quercetin, apigenin, luteolin, and kaempferol, which scavenge reactive oxygen species (ROS), such as hydroxyl free radical, superoxide, and hydrogen peroxide. ROS are the causative agents of many chronic diseases, including cancer, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and aging. Fresh cucumber extracts have anti-inflammatory properties. Cucumbers are rich in cucurbitacin triterpenes and in lignans, both of which have anticancer properties [WH Foods], Studies with healthy rabbits showed cucumbers had anti-hyperglycemic activity, suggesting a role of cucumbers in the control and prevention of diabetes mellitus [Roman-Ramos et al., 1995].


Fenugreek


Prior to consuming fenugreek the following is said, “May it be Your will, HaShem, our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors, that our enemies be decimated.” Cabbage or carrot may be substituted for fenugreek. The Aramaic name for fenugreek is ruv’yah which implies increase and abundance [Artscroll Machzor Rosh HaShannah, 1988].


Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum graecum) is liable for tithes (Maaserot 1:3) from the time when it grows (Rosh HaShannah 12b), is an ingredient in a remedy for mouth abscesses (Gittin 69a), and should be avoided on an empty stomach (Shabbos 110b). Dam niddah may be of various colors, one of which is a yellowish color (Niddah 19a), similar to blood serum.


Fenugreek is used as a spice (seeds), as an herb (dried or fresh leaves), and as a vegetable (fresh leaves and sprouts) [Wikipedia]. Studies with laboratory animals and with humans have suggested the possibility that the fenugreek seed powder has hypoglycemic properties.  Fenugreek seeds lowered the fasting serum glucose levels, both acutely and chronically, in laboratory animals and humans, suggesting its usage in the treatment of type 1 and type 2 diabetes [Basch et al., 2003; Nahas, R. and Moher, 2009]. Other positive health effects include the lowering of blood lipids [Roberts, 2011], the protecting against gastric ulcers [Pandian et al., 2002] and heartburn [DiSilvestro et al., 2011], and as an anticancer agent [Shabbeer et al., 2009]. Fenugreek was eaten in large quantities by Yemenite Jewry, who (at least prior to leaving Yemen and adapting a western style of cuisine - i.e., of sugar & fats) had an almost complete absence of diabetes and heart disease [Shaouli and Fisher, 1999].


Beets


“May it be Your will, HaShem, our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors, that our adversaries are removed” is recited before eating beets. Sweet food items are eaten on Rosh Hashannah, and, as such, sour borscht should be avoided [Artscroll Mackzor Rosh HaShannah, 1988].


Raw or partially cooked beets (Beta vulgaris) are unhealthy. However, fully cooked beets are healthy for the heart, eyes, and the gastrointestinal tract (Eruvin 28b, 29a). Beets are recognized by their deep colored pigments, termed betalains; the betacyanins are red-violet in color and betaxanthins are yellowish in color. These pigments have antioxidant and antiinflammatory properties and support activity of detoxification enzymatic processes to neutralize those toxins ingested with our foods [WHFoods].  Beets are rich in nitrates.  Beet root juice, as a nitrate supplement, enhanceds the performance of trained athletes, e.g., cyclists (Cermak et al., 2012), and reduced blood pressure and oxygen depletion due to exercise (Vanhatalo et al., 2010).         .


Quoting from the Artscroll Machzor for Rosh HaShannah, “FOR A GOOD YEAR MAY YOUR FAMILY AND YOU BE INSCRIBED AND SEALED (IMMEDIATELY, FOR A GOOD LIFE AND FOR PEACE).”


References


Adao, C.R., da Silva, B.P., and Parente, J.P., 2011, A new steroidal saponin with anti-inflammatory and antiulcerogenic properties from the bulbs of Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum, Fitoterapia, 82: 1175-1180.


Adao, C.R. et al., 2012, Haemolytic activity and immunological adjuvant effect of a new steroidal saponin from Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum, Chem. Biodivers., 9: 58-67.


Alamri, S.A. and Moustafa, M.F., 2012, Antimicrobial properties of 3 medicinal plants from Saudi Arabia against some clinical isolates of bacteria, Saudi Med. J., 33:272-277.


Artscroll, 1988, Rosh HaShanah (compiled by Rabbis N.  Sherman, H. Goldwurm, and A. Gold),  Mesorah Publ., Ltd., Brooklyn, NY.


Basch, E. et al., 2003, Therapeutic applications of fenugreek, Altern. Med. Rev., 8:20-27.


Cermak, N.M., Gibala, M.J., and van Loon, L.J., 2012, Nitrate supplementation’s improvement of 10-km time-trial performance in trained cyclists, Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab., 22:64-71.


DiSilvestro, R.A. et al., 2011, Antiheartburn effects of fenugreek fiber product, Phytother. Res.,  25: 88-91.


Graham, S. et al., 1990, Diet in the epidemiology of gastric cancer, Nutr. Cancer 13:19-34.


Nahas, R. and Moher, M., 2009, Complementary and alternative medicine for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. Can, Fam. Phys., 55:591-596.


Pandian, R.S., Anuradha, C.V., and Viswanathan, P., 2002, Gastroprotective effect of fenugreek seeds (Trigonella foenum graecum) on experimental gastric ulcer in rats, J. Ethnopharmacol., 81:393-397.


Roman-Ramos, R. et al., 1995, Anti-hyperglycemic effect of some edible plants, J. Ethnopharmacol., 48:25-32.


Shabbeer, S. et al., 2009, Fenugreek: a naturally occurring edible spice as an anticancer agent, Cancer Biol. Ther., 8:272-278.


Shaouli, M.C. and Fisher, Y., 1999, Nature’s Wealth, Feldheim Publ., NY, NY  


Shulman, Y.D. (translator), 1992, Pathway to Jerusalem. The Travel Letters of Rabbi Ovadiah of  Bartenura, CIS Publishers, NY, NY..


Vanhatalo, A. et al., 2010, Acute and chronic effects of dietary nitrate supplementation on blood pressure and the physiological responses to moderate-intensity and incremental exercise,  Amer. J. Physiol. Regul. Integr. Comp. Physiol., 299:R1121-R1131.


Washington State Department of Health,  http://www.doh.wa.gov/.../Food/Fish/HealthBenefits.aspx, retrieved, July 20, 2012.


WHFoods, Cucumbers, http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=42,  retrieved July 20, 2012


WHFoods, Beets, http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=49, retrieved August 2, 2012,


Wikipedia, Fenugreek, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fenugreek, retrieved July 20, 2012.


Wikipedia, Leeks, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leek, retrieved July 20, 2012.

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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today l'zecher nishmas Rav Dovid Lifshitz ZT'L whose yahrzeit was the 9th of Tammuz, by a talmid