9/26/2006

Avoiding Nuts on Rosh Hashana – a New Theory (which is Humorous, but Not Funny)

This is one truly out-of-the-box idea that can only come from the gnarled mind of a Rabbi with ADD. It grew out of an ongoing conversation that I’ve been having with Josh about these customs. There are certain obvious clues that something strange is afoot here, beginning with the fact that egoz is NOT be-gematria cheyt, and ending with the fact that there aren’t really many customs out there in which we avoid certain objects or practices because of their numerical value.

First, a brief word about magic. A ‘magical’ worldview (nothing to do with witches or Harry Potter) is one in which causality is not scientific (see here for a fuller definition). There are any number of specific magical laws or doctrines, but the basic thinking, that there’s some type of causal nexus between objects that are similar in some sense but physically independent, pervaded all human rational discourse up until the Enlightenment.

The famous doctrine of Ma’aseh Avot Siman Le-banim, as introduced by the Ramban in Bereishit 12:6, is a classic example of ‘sympathetic’ magical thinking. As support, Ramban invokes effigies and other practices that we would call ‘voodoo’ in support of this doctrine of ‘Ma’aseh Avot’. It’s important to realize that this was commonly accepted rational discourse in the Ramban’s day, and even much later on.

The practice of Simana Milta is a product of the same thinking. In it, the similarity between objects lies in the similarity of their names. As opposed to other systems, in which similarity was determined by, for example, shape (as propounded in the Doctrine of Signatures). Thus, nominal similarities become causal relationships, and by eating things whose names are auspicious, one can cause good things to happen during the year. Thus, the Gemara states that ‘simana milta’ – i.e., ‘these omens are real’, they work.

This brings us to the egoz. An egoz is not just any old nut, but a particular type of nut, in all likelihood a walnut (indeed, R’ Moshe Ha-Darshan, Josh tells me, reports that an egoz has 4 chambers). As has been mentioned here and elsewhere, there are 2 reasons given for avoiding egozim on Rosh Hashana:
  1. It has the numerical value of cheyt

  2. It increases phlegm
Nevertheless, it certainly seems that the avoidance of egozim belongs in the same category of practices as the simanim – certain foods are considered auspicious, and others are specifically considered inauspicious (the only other food that I know people avoid on RH is horseradish, because it’s called marror). The numerology would be a bit of a stretch from foods that actually sound like particular objects or occurrences, but still cut from the same cloth. I hope to explain how that happened.

The Roman physician Galen, based on the Doctrine of Signatures (see above), writes that the walnut is good ‘brain food’ – the shell is shaped like the human skull, and the nut is shaped like the brain. It’s good for the brain. We will return to this, but suffice it to say that the brain might not be the organ that we’re trying to bolster on Rosh Hashana, which is the anniversary of Adam’s Primordial Sin, which was a sin of da’at.

In pre-modern medicine, there were deemed to be four basic personality types, based on the balance of the four humors – blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. Each type had certain characteristics, was enjoined to refrain from certain foods and gravitate toward others, and was assumed to have a particular organ that was dominant.

An excess of phlegm rendered one phlegmatic. A phlegmatic personality was characterized by rationality, coldness, logical reasoning, curiosity, and skepticism. The dominant organ is the brain. I suggest that the ‘excess of phlegm’ that was caused by the brain-like egoz had nothing to do with making singing or blowing the shofar difficult, but with an imbalance toward hyper-rationalism.

So why is hyper-rationalism to be avoided on Rosh Hashana? Because it was associated with the Fall of Man. Since the minhag is an early Ashkenazic one, it could have originated a particularly anti-rationalist circle (like the Chasidei Ashkenaz) or culture (like 14-17th Century Ashkenaz). It could have also been seen as an impediment to prayerfulness, as the phlegmatic is less agitated than any of the personality types. This would have been the original reason for the minhag – to prevent the negative effects of excess phlegm (which have nothing to do with breathing passages) on the day that we are most sensitive to Man’s Original Sin of having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, at the instigation of the snake, the wiliest of creatures.

Thus, to make the connection between walnuts and sin stronger, someone came up with a mnemonic gematria – which, if you have a good shoehorn, works – to connect the two.

There’s one other piece that’s missing to this puzzle: a source that states that the fruit that Adam ate was an egoz.
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