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“Shanah Tovah” More Than Apples and Honey

Jewish people from around the world greet each other at various times of the year with special customary greetings. We extend to each other a “Shabbat Shalom” or “Good Shabbos,” each Friday and Saturday and “Shavua Tov” at the conclusion of Havdalah every Saturday night. “Good Yom Tov” or “Moadim L’Simcha” depending on your persuasion (Ashkenaz or Sefard) is extended on each holiday: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret. Erev Yom Kippur we extend to each other the hope of “Gemar Tov,” or “Gemar Chatima Tova,” that we will have a positive and successful Yom Kippur outcome. 

On Rosh Hashanah everyone knows that we say some version of “Shanah Tovah” and/or “Tizku L’Shanim Rabot” (“May you have a good year,” and “May you merit many years”). However, this greeting on Rosh Hashanah is different from all the rest. It has a special and unique halakhic significance. It is more than just the appropriate holiday or seasonal greeting. Its cause, the reason why we say it, is generated by the very sanctity of Rosh Hashanah. Unlike the other greetings mentioned above, extending the greeting of “Shanah Tovah” is a halakhic enhancement to the essence of Rosh Hashanah. How is this so?

The reason behind this greeting stem directly from the Talmud, Tractate K’reitot, 6a. There the sage, Abaye, tells us that we should eat different foods on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. With each different food we eat we say a distinct יהי רצון, “May it be His will that…our merits should be many, or that our enemies are cut down, etc.” The most widely practiced custom is to eat a slice of apple dipped in honey and then say, “May it be His will that this year be sweet.” The reason for this practice is that the Talmud concludes, “A sign is something.” 

This concept is not due to our religion embracing any aspect of superstition. Judaism is completely removed from any childish and idolatrous actions. “For there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel.” (Bamidbar 23:23) Eating or not eating these foods will not affect in any way the quality of the coming year a person will have. Similarly, we reject the notion, for example, that affixing a mezuzah or checking the parchment will protect a home from burglary or its occupants from illness.

As explained by my mentor and teacher, Rabbi Yisroel Chait, the concept of “a sign is something” comes from the practice in ancient Israel of anointing a king near a river or well. (K’reitot, 5b) This ceremony was performed to show that the desire of the nation was that his reign should flow continually like a river. Why do this for a king and not for some other appointment such as for Kohen Gadol? By all other appointments, once the person is appointed, he receives the requisite honor due the office. However by a king, the very appointment is for respect. The Torah says, “That your awe should be upon him.” Not that you are appointing him as king and now since he is king he deserves respect. No. The very essence of the institution of kingship is respect. A king that would do a menial job, sweep the palace floor for example, would be in violation of the very essence of the position to which he was appointed. Such a performance would uproot the very concept of king. When the people anointed a king by a river, they were demonstrating that they were accepting him as king. They want him as king, and they desire to be “in awe” of him. Most importantly, they want his rule to flow and continue. 

Thus we see that “a sign is something,” has legal significance with regard to a king. So too with Rosh Hashanah. The essential idea, the core of the sanctity of the day of Rosh Hashanah, is accepting and proclaiming, “God is King!” But without the permission of the Talmud, due to the concern that people will misunderstand the idea of “a sign is significant,” we would not be allowed to institute such customs.

The essential theme of Rosh Hashanah is not just reflected in our prayers when we say, “Our Father, Our King.” Proclaiming “God is King of the Universe” pervades everything we do on Rosh Hashanah. The rabbis attached this idea to many of our regular activities on Rosh Hashanah. They should reflect our acceptance of God as our King. If we don’t do these activities: dress in a dignified way, add special references to God as King in our prayers and in the Kiddush, eat different foods during the first night of Rosh Hashanah , and greet each other with some version of “Shanah Tovah,” the very sanctity of Rosh Hashanah is diminished. 

This idea is not true for Shabbat or any other Yom Tov. Saying or not saying “Shabbat Shalom” or “good Yom Tov” is not an enhancement to the very sanctity of Shabbat or Yom Tov. However, by saying “Shanah Tovah,” to one another, or by sending Shanah Tovah cards to friends and relatives, we are fulfilling the command to “coronate and proclaim God as King of the Universe.”

Rosh Hashanah is the time set aside for the entire world, for Jew and non-Jew alike, to reflect and re-embrace the truth that Hashem, is King of the Universe. Our prayers on Rosh Hashanah make repeated reference to all mankind. We abide here, in His world, due to His mercy as King. Were He to invoke strict justice, and demand absolute allegiance to His rule, a very different outcome for us may occur?

To the entire Posnack Family, Faculty and Staff and to all the readers of my weekly d’var torah in the Ram News, let me extend my sincerest expression of “Shanah Tovah” to each and every one. May it be a year of personal health and prosperity, a year of advancement in learning, a year of contentment and satisfaction, a year of peace among the nations of the world and God’s continued protection of Israel. And may this be the year that the entire world recognizes the kingship and authority of the Almighty.

Shanah Tovah u’Metuka and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan