Judaism: A Happy and Sweet Year
Less than two weeks ago we read the tochachah – the frightening and sobering reprimand and warning of the curses that Hashem would inflict upon us as a punishment for transgressing His mitzvot (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). Parashat Ki Tavo, which contains the tochachah, is invariably read on the penultimate Shabbat of the year.
This is a deliberate decision, and the Talmud records both its origin and its reason. “Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Ezra decreed that Israel would read the curses in the Book of Leviticus before Shavuot, and those in the Book of Deuteronomy before Rosh Hashanah. What is the reason? – Said Abayye, and some say it was Reish Lakish: So that the year should finish together with its curses” (Megillah 31b).
The Tosafot notes: “The question was asked in Rabbeinu Nissim’s academy – why are Parashot Nitzavim and Vayeilech read separately when there are two Shabbatot between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot (excluding Yom Kippur), rather than separating Parashot Mattot and Massei which are longer? And they answered: It is because in Parashat Nitzavim there are curses with which Israel was afflicted, and we want to finish these before Rosh Hashanah”.
It is strange that it is not clear whether the principle that “the year should finish together with its curses” should be attributed to Abayye or Reish Lakish. These two Torah-giants lived 600 miles and a century apart from each other: Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish) was a first-generation (3rd century) Amora in Israel, and Abayye was a fourth-generation Amora (4th century) in Babylon.
We can understand how a teaching might be attributed to either of two contemporaneous rabbis, living in close proximity. Such indeed happens with, for example, Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi (both third-generation Amoraim in Israel, both colleagues, both in Tiberias, both students of Rabbi Yohanan bar Nafcha); such happens with Rabbi Hanina bar Papa and Rav Zeira (both third-generation Amoraim in Israel, both students of Rabbi Yohanan); such happens with Rava and Rav Hisda (both second-generation Amoraim in Babylon, Rava was Rav Hisda’s son-in-law and student).
But how could Abayye and Reish Lakish, so widely separated both geographically and chronologically, be confused with one another?
I suggest that in fact, both Abayye and Reish Lakish presented this reason – that we read the tochachah in Parashat Ki Tavo immediately before Rosh Hashanah “so that the year should finish together with its curses”. We have much to learn from both Abayye and Reish Lakish about Rosh Hashanah and its meaning.
Let us begin with Abayye. It was Abayye who instituted the custom which we all know and love of eating specific foods on Rosh Hashanah to symbolise the blessings of the coming year. In response to Rabbi Ami who suggested certain omens which foretell success or failure in various undertakings, “Abayye said: Since you claim that omens are significant, let every person customarily eat on Rosh Hashanah pumpkin, fenugreek, leek, beet, and dates” (Horayot 12a, Keritot 6a).
Rashi (commentary to Keritot 6a) says simply, “because they grow quickly and are sweet). Later commentators offered additional symbolisms inherent in these foods, and later generation added more foods with their respective symbolisms. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, Laws of Rosh Ha-Shanah 683:1) cites this as practical halakhah: “A person should be accustomed to eat on Rosh Ha-Shanah fenugreek, leek, beet, dates, and pumpkin. And when he eats the fenugreek (rubiya), he says ‘May it be His will that our merits increase (yirbu)’. On the leek (karti) – ‘…may our enemies be cut off (yekartu). On the beet (silka) – ‘…that our enemies be banished (yistalku)’. On the dates (tamar) – ‘…that our enemies come to an end (yitamu)’. On the pumpkin (kara) – ‘…that harsh decrees against us be torn (yekara) and our merits be read (yikaru) before You’”.
The Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserlis, Poland c. 1525-1572), the Ashkenazi possek (legal arbiter, ed., adds in a gloss here: “And there are those whose custom is to eat sweet apple with honey, and to say: ‘…that a sweet year be renewed for us, and this is our custom. And there are those who eat pomegranate and say: ‘May our merits be as numerous as [the seeds in] the pomegranate’”.
Since it was Abayye who instituted this sensual custom – to eat fast-growing and sweet foods as omens, literally to taste the sweetness that we hope the incoming year to bring – it is eminently appropriate that Abayye also saw the reading of the tochachah immediately before Rosh Hashanah as a significant omen – “that the year should finish together with its curses”.
As for Reish Lakish – he epitomises the capacity that we all have for teshuvah. Though he was born to a family of Torah-sages (Shabbat 119b), Reish Lakish became a bandit, a robber, a violent highwayman – and then utterly reformed and became one of the great masters of his generation.
It was Reish Lakish who taught the value of repentance: “Great is repentance, because it transforms deliberate sins into accidental errors.... Great is repentance, because it transforms deliberate sins into merits.... These two statements do not contradict each other – one speaks of repentance due to love, the other of repentance due to fear” (Yoma 86b; Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 342).
Since it was Reish Lakish who understood – maybe better than anyone else – how sins could be transformed into mitzvot, how Hashem’s castigation, His warnings of punishment and the punishment itself, is actually a sign of His love for us, it is equally appropriate that Reish Lakish would have seen and expounded upon the significance of reading the tochachah immediately before Rosh Hashanah.
We stand this Rosh Hashanah, perhaps more starkly than ever before, in the midst of historical events. The storm is swirling around the Land of Israel. To the north, Syria has long since buried its hundred-and-twenty-thousandth corpse, all sides slaughtering all sides in unspeakable savagery. To the east, in trans-Jordan, the fictitious kingdom of Jordan is audibly bubbling. To the south-west, Egypt is piling up the corpses in the streets, not even managing to bury them before the next revolution or counter-revolution or counter-counter-revolution devours its next human victims. To the west, the warships of half-a-dozen nations are turning their lethal attentions towards the shores of this region.
And in the midst of all this maelstrom, Israel has so far remained relatively peaceful. But this tranquillity might be an illusion, it could be shattered on the whim of any one of two dozen tyrants in our region.
As the final hours of 5773 tick away and the new year 5774 approaches, this is the time for every Jew to beseech G-d for a happy, healthy, sweet, and good year 5774.
This prompts one final thought. It is customary to wish each other “shanah tovah u-metukah” – a good and sweet year (see Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Siddur, Kiddush for Rosh Hashanah; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 129:9). Why both “good” and “sweet”? – As we all know, that which is good for you is rarely sweet, and that which is sweet is rarely good for you.
War sometimes brings long-term benefits – but it is a horribly bitter medicine. Peace is sweet – but it can cause bitterness more horrible than can be described.
May this year bring a sweetness that is truly good for us, and a goodness that will be sweet.
Shanah tovah u-metukah. And if I have offended any readers with anything I have written over the last year, I take this opportunity to ask you to forgive me.