There is a well-known halachah that one is not allowed to fast on Rosh Hashanah barring certain specific circumstances. Although it is a Day of Judgment, and there are shittos of the Gaonim that do permit one to fast, nevertheless the halachah is that Rosh Hashanah is also a festive Yom Tov and we must honor it properly. In fact, the Yerushalmi mentions that we must eat, drink, and be mesamayach on Rosh Hashanah. This includes partaking of fine delicacies, as it is written in Sefer Nechemiah regarding Rosh Hashanah, that everyone should “Eat fatty foods and drink sweet drinks…for this day is holy.”
Interestingly, there are various customs related to the permissibility of partaking of meat on Rosh Hashanah, although it is considered to be the most distinguished of foods, and therefore seemingly the most appropriate delicacy with which to honor the holiday.
Many readers are probably puzzled by the last paragraph, and might exclaim after rereading it: “What? How is that possible? Everyone eats meat on Rosh Hashanah. In fact it is even widely used as one of the Simanim.
The Gemara recounts that Abaye exhorted us to eat certain specific foods on Rosh Hashanah as symbolic omens for the upcoming year. This practice is even codified as halachah in the ShulchanAruch.
According to the famed MaharalM’Prague and later the Chayei Adam,and based on the Ramban, the purpose of performing these Simanim is that a physical action, small as it may be, serves as a conduit to actualize and channel a Divine decree.
And one of the foods that is commonly eaten as one of these Simanim is a Rosh Kevess, the head of a ram, which by definition is definitely a type of meat. So why would anyone not partake of meat on Rosh Hashanah? Furthermore, how can something meant to properly usher in the New Year possibly be prohibited?
Where’s the Beef?
The answer to these questions lie in an interesting minhag found in a somewhat obscure sefer titled “Maggid Meisharim,” that is cited by several authorities, including the Magen Avraham and Elyah Rabba, not to eat meat or drink wine on Rosh Hashanah. While that alone does not seem too noteworthy, as everyone can simply say “to each his own; he’ll follow his custom and I will follow mine”, in this case, however, it is the author of the sefer that demands our attention.
The author of the Maggid Meisharim is none other than the great Rav Yosef Karo, codifier extraordinaire and author of our authoritative Code of Law, the Shulchan Aruch. Moreover, this particular sefer is a compilation of the halachos that he personally learned from a Malach from Shamayim; in other words, from an angel. This means, that according to the Heavenly spheres it seems that we should actually refrain from eating meat on Rosh Hashanah.
But if so, how do we reconcile the directive of Ezra Hasofer cited in the aforementioned Sefer Nechemiah about “eating fatty foods?” This surely refers to eating meat. Furthermore, there are several Mishnayos referencing that one should eat meat on Rosh Hashanah. Additionally, as mentioned previously, the Shulchan Aruch himself cites the minhag to eat a Rosh Kevess (a lamb’s head) on Rosh Hashanah night as a Siman. What is the proper ruling?
The Meat of the Matter
There seem to be several different views on how to resolve this glaring contradiction. One answer is that the Maggid was only referring to refraining from eating meat on Rosh Hashanah day. Conversely, on Rosh Hashanah night, when most people perform the Yehi Ratzons, the positive omens beneficial for starting the year off on the right foot, meat is indeed permitted. Accordingly, one may still have his lamb’s head (as one of the simanim) and eat it too.
Another possible solution is that the Maggid’s proscription was only meant for certain specific individuals who attained a high degree of spirituality (Yechidei Segulah), and was never meant for the general populace, who may certainly partake of a fleishig seudah on Rosh Hashanah.
Heaven on Earth?
However, the most widely accepted resolution is similar to that found in Gemara Bava Metzia 59b - in an analogous debate regarding the great Rabbi Eliezer who brought proof for his minority opinion by performing open miracles. The Gemara concludes that nevertheless, “Torah Lo Bashamayim Hee,” meaning we do not base our halachic decisions on how the relevant issue is viewed in the Heavenly realms.
Likewise, regarding our pertinent discussion, many authorities categorically reject this prohibitive view with nary a mention of it, and allow eating meat on Rosh Hashanah. Several even aver that it is an outright obligation to do so, in order to properly commemorate Rosh Hashanah. Several authorities point out that had the Shulchan Aruch meant for his Maggid’s words to be authoritative psak, he would have codified the Maggid’s rulings as part of his Shulchan Aruch and not in a separate sefer.
Eating meat on Rosh Hashanah has since become the common minhag, as Rav Nitronaei Gaon, as well as many Rishonim including Rashi, Rabbeinu Gershom, the Meiri, Rav Yehuda Hachassid, and Rabbeinu Efraim, and the vast majority of Acharonim from across the Jewish spectrum, including the Rema, Levush, Noda B’Yehuda, Yaavetz, Chayei Adam, Shulchan Aruch Harav, Matteh Efraim, Ben Ish Chai, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Aruch Hashulchan, and Kaf Hachaim, all write that the proper minhag is that one should eat bassar shamein on Rosh Hashanah. This is also explicitly cited as the normative minhag by several contemporary Sefardic poskim, including Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l, Rav Yaakov Hillel, and Rav Yitzchok Yosef. The Kaf Hachaim actually concludes that even “Yechidei Segulah” do not have to follow the Maggid’s words, and accordingly should eat meat on Rosh Hashanah.
In the final analysis, we mere mortals, apparently unlike angels, can and should properly celebrate the holiday of Rosh Hashanah in style, giving it the honor it deserves, including by eating fleishig delicacies l’kavod Yom Tov. However, it is important to note that many poskim caution that even so, it is proper not to incite our internal desires by overindulging ourselves on Rosh Hashanah. Therefore, it would be prudent for us to remember before enjoying our Yom Tov roasts, that the essence of the day is not about gastronomical delight, but rather our avodah of crowning Hashem as our King.lll
Postscript: Many later authorities, including the Chacham Tzvi, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, and the Chazon Ish, among others, share an interesting and different viewpoint regarding the Shulchan Aruch’s Maggid. This author has also heard this view averred b’sheim noted mekubal Rav Yaakov Hillel.
They understand that a Maggid does not actually rule with Heavenly authority; rather it uses the individual’s own merit and koach to present rulings. Meaning, although Rav Karo cites psakim from the Maggid, it is essentially utilizing his own personal hidden strengths to bring out these rulings. Therefore, concludes Rav Chaim Volozhiner, that in this instance it must be that notwithstanding his incredible greatness, Rav Karo must have somehow and inexplicably personally made a mistake, and the outcome of that resulted in a potentially erroneous conclusion being ‘taught by the Maggid.’
In a similar vein, the Minchas Elazar wrote that in his estimation, the Maggid Meisharim’s teachings and psakim, although of Divine origin, were only meant for Rav Karo himself and not necessarily the general populace. Either way, and whichever understanding, in this instance it is quite understandable why the common minhag is to partake of meat L’kavod Rosh Hashanah, and not necessarily following the assertion of the “Maggid.”
Much of this article is based on Rabbi Eliezer Brodt’s fascinating Likutei Eliezer (Ch. 4, pg. 90-118).
This article was written L’iluy Nishmas Shoshana Leah bas Dreiza Liba and R’ Chaim Baruch Yehuda ben Dovid Tzvi, and l’zechus for Shira Yaffa bas Rochel Miriam v’chol yotzei chalatzeha for a yeshua sheleimah teikif umiyad.