Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2001 / 25 Elul, 5761

Food for Rosh Hashana thought

By Asher V. Finn -- AN odd Rosh Hashana custom, duly recorded in the Talmud and halachic codes, is the lavishing of puns on holiday foods.

Most Jews know that on the first night of the Jewish new year, it is customary to eat a piece of apple dipped in honey, to symbolize our hope for a sweet year. Less known is the Rosh Hashana night custom of eating foods whose names augur well for the future. Though the Talmud's examples are, of course, in Hebrew or Aramaic, the commentaries direct us to find our own pun-foods in whatever language we may speak.

"Lettuce have a wonderful year" might thus be an appropriate example. Or "Help us pear away our sins." Or even an entreaty that G-d be our advocate -- before a piece of avocado. (Partaking of a raisin and stalk of celery, as one respected rabbi smilingly suggested, after expressing the hope for a "raise in salary" might be stretching things a bit, but then again maybe not.)

Such exercises might seem a bit out of place, though, on the Jewish holy "day of judgment." But that is only because we regard the custom simplistically, as some quaint superstition. In truth, though, it is precisely Rosh Hashana's deep austere gravity that lies at the custom's source.

There are other interesting and telling Jewish customs regarding Rosh Hashana, like the pointed recommendation that the Jewish new year be carefully utilized to the very fullest for prayer, Torah-study and good deeds, that not a moment of its time be squandered. Mitzvos and good conduct, of course, are always "in season", but they seem to have particular power on Rosh Hashana. Similarly, Jewish sources caution against allowing anger to develop on Rosh Hashana. The Jewish new year days are to reflect only the highest Jewish ideals.

The 16th century Jewish luminary Rabbi Yehudah Loewy, known as the Maharal, points out the crucial nature of beginnings. He explains that the trajectory of a projectile -- or, we might similarly note, the outcome of a series of mathematical computations -- can be affected to an often astounding degree by a very small change at the start of the process. A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow -- or an error of a single digit at the first step of a long calculation -- can yield a surprisingly large difference in the end. Modern scientific terminology has given the concept both the unwieldy name "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" and the playful one "the butterfly effect", and allusion to the influence the flapping of a butterfly's wings halfway around the world could presumably have on next week's local weather.

Rosh Hashana is thus much more than the start of the Jewish year. It is the day from which the balance of the year unfolds, a time of "initial conditions" that is exquisitely sensitive to whatever we choose do on it.

The Rosh Hashana puns, too, may be closely tied to how crucial it is to the year it ushers in, how finely attuned it is to our every action. While such word-play would hardly seem a substantive means of ensuring good fortune, and is not suggested by Jewish texts for any other time of the year, on Rosh Hashana -- with its sensitivity to even mundane acts -- it is afforded great prominence.

For by imbuing even things as seemingly meaningless as our choice of foods with meaning on Rosh Hashana, we are symbolically affirming the proposition that beginnings have particular potential. That there are times when each of our actions has magnified meaning. By seizing even the most wispy opportunity to try to bestow blessing on the Jewish new year, we declare our determination to start the year as right as we possibly can.

Do the puns actually work? Have they some real effect on our year? We are not explicitly informed by the Talmud. What they unarguably accomplish, though, is to impress upon us the unusual degree to which our actions at the start of a Jewish year affect how we will live its balance.

And with that determination, we are more likely to value every opportunity to truly improve our spiritual lot -- to make ourselves into better Jews in our relations both to one another and to our Creator.

So may all we Jews merit a Rosh Hashana with only sweetness and joy, devoid of sadness or anger. And may we all seize every such chance to make 5762's beginning as perfect as we are able - and thereby usher in a year when our collective and individual Jewish lives take a distinct and substantial turnip for the better.

Asher V. Finn is a Manhattan-based freelancer, part of Am Echad's pool of writers. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Am Echad