30 December 2022
‘May it be your will, Lord our God … to
renew for us a happy and sweet year’
We are coming to the end of another year, and tomorrow is New Year’s Eve (31 December 2022).
Hanukkah and Christmas overlap every few years, but the confluence of the two holidays this year was indeed unusual. Hanukkah this year began on 18 December and ended last Monday, 26 December.
It has been an unusual year for me, with a mixture of sorrows and happiness, difficulties and challenges, health scares and the joys of love, changes in home and ministry, the end of some old certainties and setting out in new directions.
On this Friday evening, in my prayers and reflections, I am thinking about some Jewish customs associated with the Jewish New Year.
Of course, the Jewish New Year or Rosh haShanah falls earlier in the year, in autumn: this year, Rosh haShanah fell three months, beginning on the evening of 25 September and ending on the evening of 27 September. But the customs associated with Rosh haShanah are worth contemplating as we come to the end of one year and prepare for the beginning of another.
Customs vary from community to community, but there is a shared Jewish custom at Rosh haShanah of eating traditional foods such as apples and honey at the start of a New Year. This involves eating apples dipped in honey as a sign of a ‘sweet New Year.’ Other traditions include eating carrots, leeks, beets, dates, gourds, pomegranates, fish, or even the head of a sheep. Each custom has its own symbolism and associated prayer.
In Judaism, the beginning of something contains within it the potential of the whole, and what we experience on the first day of the year is a token of the days to come. Tasting the sweetness of the apple and the honey, prayers are said for the rest of the year too, that it will bring sweetness.
Commentators note that the prayers on Rosh haShanah speak of exalted things: God’s sovereignty over the universe, and his judgment of our lives. As the former Chief Rabbi, the late Lord (Jonathan) Sacks wrote, ‘We do not pray for material blessings; rather, we do so, obliquely and gently, at the table while eating symbolic food. The custom mitigates the severity of the day and serves as a reminder that all we enjoy comes to us from God.’
Another custom associated with the Jewish New Year is Tashlich or ‘the casting.’ It is a custom to go to the shore of the sea, the bank of a river, or other running stream of water, as a symbolic enactment of the words of the Prophet Micah: ‘He will cast (tashlich) into the depths of the sea all their sins’ (Micah 7: 19).
A variety explanations has been given for this tradition. But the first mention of this custom is in the early 15th century in the Sefer Maharil of Rabbi Jacob Moellin, who died in 1425.
Water is a symbol in Jewish tradition of the knowledge that leads to virtue and peace: ‘They will neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11: 9).
Rivers are a symbol of tears (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan 31) and so a sign of repentance and remorse: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept as we remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137: 1). Flowing water is also a symbol of time, mortality and the shortness of life: ‘One generation goes, another comes ... All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full’. A consciousness of mortality is a fundamental theme of Rosh haShanah, the Jewish New Year (‘Write us in the Book of Life’).
Some Jewish families and communities have the custom of shaking the hems of their clothing, in accordance with Nehemiah 5: 13, ‘Also I shook out my lap, and said: So may God shake out …’ (Machzor Oholei Yaakov).
Kiddush on the evening of Rosh Hashanah includes the prayers:
‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the vine …’
‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time …’
‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the tree …’
‘May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to renew for us a happy and sweet year …’
Happy New Year