Symbolism is Real
The Gemara (Horayot 12a and Keritut 6a) states that one should make sure to see the following foods on Rosh Hashanah as a good omen: Gourd, leek, spinach, and dates. Rashi explains that these fruits and vegetables are symbolically good to see on Rosh Hashanah because they grow faster than other fruits and vegetables. The Gemara in Masechet Keritut, however, states that one should eat these items, as opposed to merely seeing them as the Gemara in Masechet Horayot states. Indeed, this custom of eating these symbolic foods is codified by the Tur and Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 583). The Sefer Kol Bo writes that one should recite prayers in the form of “Yehi Ratzon” texts corresponding to the respective names of these items (as printed in Machzorim).
Reciting the Blessing First
One should first recite a blessing on the fruit or vegetable. For instance, when one takes a date, one should first recite the “Boreh Peri Ha’etz” blessing, take a bite of the date, recite the “Yehi Ratzon” text, and then proceed to eat the rest of the date. (No further “Boreh Peri Ha’etz” blessing is recited on the rest of the fruits on the table.)
Some have the custom to first recite the “Yehi Ratzon” text and only then to recite the appropriate blessing and eat. This custom is quoted by the Sefer Mateh Moshe (Chapter 590) and others. Nevertheless, this custom is not recommended since it is inappropriate to pose our own requests before blessing and praising Hashem. The prevalent custom is therefore to recite the blessing, taste the food, recite the “Yehi Ratzon” text, and then continue eating the food. This was indeed the custom of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l. He proceeds to support this ruling from a Gemara (Nedarim 32b) which states that Shem, son of Noach, also known as Malki Tzedek King of Shalem, who approached Avraham Avinu with bread and wine after winning the war against the four mighty kings. He blessed Avraham saying, “Blessed is Avram to G-d on high Who created Heaven and earth.” Only afterwards did he exclaim, “And blessed is G-d on high Who delivered your enemies in your hands.” Avraham Avinu exclaimed to Shem, “Does the blessing to a servant precede the blessing to the master?” Here too, it is therefore preferable to first recite the appropriate blessing on the food, taste a little bit, and only then recite the “Yehi Ratzon” text, which is our personal request for Heavenly mercy. (See Chazon Ovadia- Yamim Nora’im, page 94 and on)
Day and Night
Maran Ha’Chida writes (in his Machazik Beracha, Chapter 583) that the custom is to perform the symbolic eating of these foods on the second night of Rosh Hashanah as well. The Ben Ish Hai (Parashat Nitzavim) writes that it is customary to hold this order on both daytime meals of Rosh Hashanah. Nevertheless, the prevalent custom is to hold this symbolic order only during the Rosh Hashanah night meals. This was indeed the custom of Maran zt”l.
Gourd, Black-Eyed Peas, and Pomegranates
Pumpkin or gourd is known as “Kara” in Aramaic and Arabic. Before eating the gourd, one should recite, “May it be your will, Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, that You tear up the harsh edict of our judgment and that our merits be declared before You.”
Before eating the black-eyed peas (known as “Rubia” in Aramaic and “Lubia” in Arabic), one should recite, “May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, that our merits be multiplied and that You make us beloved.” This was the custom of Maran zt”l as well.
It is also customary to eat pomegranate seeds and recite, “May it be Your will, Hashem, our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, that we be filled with Mitzvot like a pomegranate.”
Apple in Honey and Lamb Head
The Ashkenazi custom is to eat apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah. The Sephardic custom, however, is to eat apples cooked in honey (or sugar), similar to a marmalade made of apples or quinces. This was indeed the custom of Maran zt”l. One should recite, “May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, that a good and sweet year be renewed upon us.” If preparing a jam proves difficult, it is certainly sufficient to dip the apple in honey or sugar even according to the Sephardic custom. (Maran zt”l would exclaim that “a sweet new year” refers to a year filled with Torah study as Torah is sweeter than honey.)
It is likewise customary to eat some meat from a lamb’s head. Before eating, one should recite, “May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our fathers, that we be a like a head and not a like tail and this is in commemoration of the ram of our forefather, Yitzchak, of blessed memory, son of our forefather, Avraham, of blessed memory.” If one cannot procure a lamb’s head, one may use a chicken’s head. It is nevertheless preferable to join some lamb meat with it so that one may exclaim that “this is in commemoration of the ram of our forefather, Yitzchak, of blessed memory.” If one does not even have a chicken’s head, one may nevertheless recite the “Yehi Ratzon” without any of these items before him.
Every member of the household may recite the respective blessings and “Yehi Ratzon” texts on their own and they are not obligated to listen to the recitation of the head of the household and fulfill their obligation in that manner. One may nevertheless do as one pleases in this regard.