I was asked the following question, and the author thought enough people want to know the answer that it pays to share it here:
Q: “Siman“, as on Rosh Hashanah night, is translated as “omen”, but I’ve always thought that an omen is something one sees or finds out about. leading one to anticipate a positive or negative future event. The idea of manufacturing an omen to induce a positive future event (vs. doing a mitzvah or other direct action) doesn’t seem to make sense. Is there some better translation for “siman“? We’re not supposed to engage in magic. Thanks!
A: “Omen” it certainly isn’t, since that implies being told of the future.
Inducing a future event by doing something metaphorically parallel — honey / sweet year — does look like sympathetic magic. That is, one is doing something similar to the desired result to induce that result to happen. In any case, it is theurgical, an action designed to make G-d do something.) If you want a defense of such notions, ask a chassid. Besides, rationalists do these simanei milsa, the kind of people who ignore the gemara on how to keep away sheidim. So the reason for them can’t be limited to sympathetic magic.
How do requests in tefillah “work” altogether?
Okay, in reality they work simply because turning to Avinu shebaShamayim in times of trouble is itself the point. Not to get the result we want.
But we do have a strong tradition that at times tefillah can be the difference between getting a better (in our assessment) outcome or not getting one. How? R’ Hirsch and the Rav both point to the fact that lehitpalel is in hitpa’el, it is something we do to ourselves. The person who prayed is a different person than the version that didn’t. And Hashem would treat those two versions of you differently.
Now say there were a prayer we really really want to succeed in the “my request was answered with a ‘yes'” definition of succeed. Then we need a prayer that makes more of an impact on the self. Something that sticks with the person longer. Adding an experiential element will accomplish that.
So, to my mind, the essential part is saying the “Yehi Ratzon — May it be the Will before You that this be a good and sweet year!” The honey-dipped apple is to make a memory that lasts through the year. We add an experience, so that that idea stays with us longer that having a sweet year depends on Hashem granting success to my efforts, and not on my efforts alone.
This is also my general opinion on how segulos are supposed to be viewed. (As above, acknowledging there are other viewpoints, I just don’t “get” them.) For another example, many men whose wives are close to delivery will take pesichah, going up to open the aron before Torah reading, as a segulah for an easy delivery. I do not think the practice started as a means of somehow metaphysically causing one’s wife to have an easy delivery. Rather, the idea is to give the husband a more meaningful-than-usual moment in which to ask Hashem for assistance. Adding experience to prayer.
The interpretation for simanim and segulos commonly assumed in conversation (or Kupat haIr ads) is based on sympathetic magic. And it feels pagan to me in that it threatens to replace a life of avodas Hashem with one of trying to get Him to serve me.