Simanim: The Antidote to Despair
BY RABBI ZVI ELON
Asheknazim, Sephardim and Jews from all over the world carefully observe the mystical custom of “simanim,” “signs,” on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Yosef Karo writes that it is customary to take different types of vegetables and pray accordingly for the New Year. Most famously, we dip an apple in honey and pray for a good and sweet new year.
Why do the Jewish people become kabbalistic mystics on Rosh Hashanah? The Gemara itself asks: “מְנַָא הָא מִלְּתָא דַאֲמוּר רַבָּנַן סִימָנָא מִלְּתָא הוּא,” “How do we know that simanim are indeed influential?”
Every year before Rosh Hashanah, we read in Parashat Ki Teitzei about the mitzvah of hashavat aveida, that one who finds an object must not ignore the item but must return the object to its owner. Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar explains that this is true not only for lost objects, but also for people. If you see a person that is lost, there is an obligation to help him return him to the right place.
The Mishnah in “Eilu Metziot” explains that when one finds objects with identifiable characteristics, he is obligated to declare to the world that he has found the object. However, if the object found does not have any recognizable characteristics, he is permitted to keep the object for himself (“הֲרֵי אֵלּוּ שֶׁלּוֹ”). This halacha, however, presents a moral challenge.
Take, for example, a man who found a $50 bill on the street. The bill is unidentifiable, and so the finder need not declare it to the world; the money cannot be returned to anyone, since no one can prove that it is his. The question, however, is why the finder can keep the money for himself. After all, he never owned this banknote! Ethically, why is he allowed to keep this money for himself? Should he not be required to dedicate the money he found on the street to charity or to a public fund?
Tosfot explain that since the object has no identifiable sign, we can assume that the owner of the object has given up on finding it. When an owner despairs of finding an object, the object becomes hefker, ownerless. Since the object now has no owner, the first person to find it becomes the rightful owner. If a person gives up, the outcome is hefker. Gevald!
Rav Kook zt”l explains that the most wonderful thing about teshuva is that it fills the entire world with hope – hope for every individual and hope for the existence of the world as whole. Therefore, the most dangerous thing and the antithesis of teshuva is despair. As a society that believes in teshuvah, we must never let any individual fall into despair. The whole idea of Elul, as well as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, is that it is always possible to do teshuva, to improve and excel. Despair is the greatest danger. Giving up is simply not an option. For as Tosfot explain, when a person gives up and falls into despair, he abandons himself, G-d forbid.
On Rosh Hashanah, we come before Hashem and say to Him: “G-d Almighty, last year I asked for Your forgiveness, and also two years ago, and the truth is that this year I also have some things that I need to fix. People who see me might think that I am lost, that I am unidentifiable; they think that there is no way for me to do teshuva. But Hashem, look at what I brought tonight! I brought You an apple dipped in honey, a date and pomegranate, I brought simanim! I have an identity, Hashem – I have identification! And just like a lost object, if there is a siman, if there is identification, then there is no despair! I know that You will not give up on me Hashem, just as one does not give up on his lost object. If You believe in me, then I will believe in You. I believe in teshuvah!” Hashavat aveida, returning what is lost, is the root of teshuva!
I pray that we enter this new year filled with hope and belief in teshuva! May we never stop hoping to return to Hashem, to return to ourselves, and to return to one another with a new sign of hope and love.
Shana Tova U’metuka!
Rabbi Zvi Elon is the Mazkal of World Bnei Akiva.