The Yom Tov of Rosh Ha-Shanah – Excerpt from Seasons of Nobility

Seasons of Nobility is a selection of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine’s sermons on the Jewish holidays and special Shabbatot, transcribed from his manuscripts dating from 1982 to 2011. Drawing upon the author’s deep reservoir of Torah knowledge, the sermons offer original insights into the laws, customs, prayers, and public readings of the Jewish festivals. These stirring messages of faith, Jewish unity, and aspiration for redemption remain as relevant today as when they were first delivered.

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The Yom Tov of Rosh Ha-Shanah

September 20, 1990

Rosh Ha-Shanah as a yom tov presents a glaring paradox. On the one hand, it is designated a day of judgment, when three books are opened.1 But it is also a festival. In the words of Nehemiah, “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for today is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad; the enjoyment of Hashem is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10).

But there is a basic incompatibility here. As the Midrash puts it, if someone were on trial for his life, he would naturally be a nervous wreck. He would therefore neglect his physical appearance and would not even be able to think about food! Focusing of the festive mood of the day would seem to distract from the awesomeness of the day. It might even betray our belief that a day of judgment is really taking place.2

Permit me to suggest that the festive mood of the day is all for the purpose of reinforcing our resolve to make a spiritual leap on the Day of Judgment. Our thrust toward sweetness on the Day of Judgment focuses on two customs. One is the dipping of the hallah in honey, thus transforming the ordinary crust of bread into manna.3 Here we make a graphic demonstration of our basic belief that the entire sustenance of man for the year is fixed for him from Rosh Ha-Shanah.4

Then there is the custom of dipping an apple in honey. Our tradi­tion is very rich with symbolism, but possibly no object is more multi-faceted in symbolism than the apple. “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my Beloved among the sons” (Song of Songs 2:3). Why is Hashem compared to an apple? Just as an apple does not have an attractive appearance from afar, but when we come close, we realize that it has a nice fragrance, and when we taste it, we realize that it has a good taste, so, too, the demands that Hashem places upon us are at first blush onerous. But when we do the mitzvot, we find a sweetness in them.5 Torah is also compared to an apple – “rappeduni ba-tappuhim” (lit., “spread apples around me”) (Song of Songs 2:5).6

But the resolve should be to react not only when we are thrust into a setting of Torah. “The orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart” (Psalms 19:9). We reverse it and say that we must have Torah because “holat ahavah ani,” “I am lovesick” (Song of Songs 2:5). With­out Torah, I am lovesick.

And finally, the Jewish people are compared to an apple – “He smelled the fragrance of his garments [begadav] and blessed him; he said, ‘See, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field that Hashem has blessed’” (Genesis 27:27).7 Our Sages tell us, do not read the word as “begadav,” “his garments,” but rather as “bogedav,” “his traitors.” Even those Jews who appear to be traitors to the teachings of Judaism diffuse the fragrance of good deeds.8 Hence the apple represents the eternity and mystique of the Jewish people – Yisrael ve-Oraita ve-Kudesha Berikh Hu, had hu, “Israel, the Torah, and the Holy One, Blessed is He, are one,”9 with the widest integration.

Yehi ratzon she-teĥadesh aleinu shanah tovah u-metukah!10

  1. Rosh Ha-Shanah
  2. Yalkut Shimoni, Va-Et’hanan 825. See also Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:3; R. Jacob b. Asher (Tur, Spain, 1270–1343), Tur, Oraĥ Ĥayyim 581 (citing midrash).
  3. See Exodus 16:31 (stating that the manna “tasted like a cake fried in honey”).
  4. Beitzah 16a.
  5. Exodus Rabbah 17:2; R. Enoch Zundel b. Joseph (Białystock, d. 1867), Etz Yosef ad loc., s.v. “hada hu de-kesiv” (explaining that the apple does not have many leaves, and thus does not appear attractive from afar).
  6. Song of Songs Rabbah 2:14.
  7. Ta’anit 29b; Rashi to Genesis 27:27, s.v. “ke-rei’aĥ sadeh asher berakho Hashem.”
  8. Sanhedrin 37a; Ba’al ha-Turim, Genesis 8:21, s.v. “va-yaraĥ.”
  9. See Zohar, Aĥarei Mot 3:73a.
  10. “ May it be Your will that a good and sweet year will be renewed for us.” This expres­sion is said on Rosh Ha-Shanah when the apple is dipped in honey.

daddypicture6.jpgRABBI DR. AARON LEVINE, of blessed memory, was the Samson and Halina Bitensky Professor of Economics at Yeshiva University, as well as a pulpit rabbi for nearly thirty years. A leading authority on Jewish commercial law, he published widely on the interface between economics and Jewish law, especially as it relates to public policy and modern business practices. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brooklyn College, Rabbi Levine earned his PhD in Economics from New York University and was ordained in Jewish civil and ritual law at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. He was a member of the World Jewish Academy of Science and a recipient of the Irving M. Bunim Prize for Jewish Scholarship. In 1982, Rabbi Levine was respondent to Nobel laureate Milton Friedman in the Liberty Fund symposium on the Morality of the Market.
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