It is a custom to eat symbolic foods on the eve of Rosh HaShanah, including an apple dipped in honey, a pomegranate, and a fish head, among others. We say a special prayer upon each of these foods, in each case requesting a blessing from Hashem which is somehow associated with that particular food. What do these symbolisms truly mean? Is the food more than simply a reminder of what we want coming into the new year?
Rav Ami states in Horayot (12a), that this form of symbolism does not violate the Torah’s prohibition of divination, using a particular item to predict or change the future. This being said, it is permissible to eat these foods as symbols. But do they really work?
In Keritot (6b), the Gemara quotes Abaye’s statement implying that the symbolic rituals have an integral effect in the outcome of our year. A new king is anointed near a spring to symbolize that his monarchy should endure and flow like a spring. Abaye then comments that since we know that symbolism does affect the future, it is our custom to eat a gourd, fenugreek, leek, beets, and dates on Rosh HaShanah. This Gemara is the primary source for our custom to eat symbolic foods on Rosh HaShanah.
Now that we have a precedent for eating the symbolic foods, one can ask if it would be legitimate to expound upon these , or would that be mere nonsense? The Gemara (Berachot 56b), in the midst of a discussion regarding the interpretation of dreams quotes a Baraita. The Baraita states that one who sees a reed in a dream should anticipate the attainment of wisdom. One who sees multiple reeds in a dream can expect understanding. The Baraita learns these “rules” from the linguistic similarity between the word Kaneh (reed) and the Pasuk (Mishlei 4:7), “UVeChol Kinyanecha Kenei Vinah,” “In all of your acquisitions acquire understanding.” The Gemara later states that this kind of word-relation applies to all languages. From here we see that any food whose name in any language resembles a blessing is a good omen.
Although we have seen from multiple sources that these representations are effective, the Mishnah Berurah in Hilchot Rosh HaShanah (chapter 583) cautions that these foods are but symbols of what we request from Hashem and are meant to enhance our Teffilot by representing them with tangible objects.
Going into Rosh HaShanah, one should eat the foods and say the the Yehi Ratzon associated with each one. But whether the foods are efficacious or not, one should primarily rely on his Teffilot to welcome in a good new year.