Galilee Diary: And a Happy New Year

September 27, 2011Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord.
         -Leviticus 23:23-25

You can tell Rosh HaShanah is approaching:

  1. The chatzavim (Mediterranean squill) stalks have sprung up in open spaces, empty lots, and along the highways, their sudden, delicate white flowers against the drab, dry, end-of-summer background a sure sign of the change of seasons.
  2. All kinds of stores are displaying gift baskets, of every price, foods and housewares, wines, chocolates - in Israel employers are expected to give gifts at Rosh HaShanah and Pesach, and guests bring gifts to hosts at holiday meals.  Most employers now give coupons redeemable at multiple stores, ranging in value from $25 up to a few hundred dollars.  But there is still a strong market for gift baskets.
  3. Long lines at the supermarkets. No matter how traditional they are or aren't, few Israelis will violate the commandment to overeat on the holiday; and especially this year, with two days of Rosh HaShanah followed by Shabbat, the shopping carts are overflowing, as if people were stocking up for a long siege.  I suspect that the fact that the Fast of Gedaliah* falls on the day after Rosh HaShanah is based on biology, not history: we need it.
  4. Nobody will commit to anything. Any discussion of programming,planning, scheduling, dealing with issues - is cut short with theexclamation, "After the holidays!"  Life is on hold for a month (until after Sukkot).  And this year, in an attempt to rationalize the school year, the Sukkot vacation is extended forward to Yom Kippur, making for even less productive time during the holiday period.

In the 1950s, a leading Israeli educator wrote that the schools had succeeded in secularizing all the Jewish holidays, making them into national, cultural events independent of religious belief or unbelief (Sukkot a nature festival, Hanukkah a victory celebration, Tu BiSh'vat an arbor day, Purim a carnival, Shavuot a harvest festival...) except for the High Holy Days, which had thus far defied the secularization process.  And it's easy to see why: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are days of prayer and introspection, days spent, traditionally, in the synagogue.  No colorful symbols or practices, except for the sounding of the shofar, which is also a synagogue experience.  So if you are not a synagogue-goer, these days can be long and empty.  Which is why another sign of the approaching High Holy Days is the long lines at the airport, as many Israelis flee to Europe.

In recent years, attempts to bridge this religion-culture disconnect have included increased attention to the Rosh HaShanah evening meal.  The custom, especially in Middle Eastern Jewish communities, of a ceremony of eating a number of foods whose names or shapes are suggestive of blessings for the coming year, has taken on a new life and been popularized, a kind of attempt to create a "seder" for the meal, to add some meaning beyond just being together and eating a lot.  For example, pomegranates, which are just coming to market at this season: "May the new year be as full of blessings as the pomegranate is full of pips."  Amen! (Just don't stain the tablecloth.)

Shanah Tovah!

*The Fast of Gedaliah, on the 3rd of Tishrei, is one of the four traditional fast days associated with the destruction of the Temple.  It commemorates the murder of Gedaliah, the Jewish governor of Judea who ruled on behalf of the Babylonians after the destruction (Jeremiah 40-41).

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah and Galilee Diary

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