People ask me: What greetings do we offer at this season of the Jewish year?
- You can say shanah tovah, “a good year.”
- Some would say: l’shanah tovah.
- You can say l’shanah tovah tikateivu, “may you be inscribed for a good year.”
- You can say: shanah tova u’metukah, “a good, sweet year.”
- You can say, in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and on Yom Kippur itself and beyond, l’shanah tovah tikateivu v’techateimu, “may you be written and sealed for a good year.”
- You can say gmar chatimah tovah, “may you be finished and sealed for a good year.”
- You can say, for the rest of today and tomorrow, heading into and on Yom Kippur, tzom kal, “an easy (and/or meaningful) fast.”
But, there is one thing that I wish that people would not say.
That would be “Happy New Year!”
Why do I wish that people would not say “Happy New Year!” during this season?
Because that is what you say at the end and beginning of a secular year. It is a December 31 sort of thing to say. The ball is dropping in Times Square; there is the countdown, and come midnight between December 31 and January 1, there are noisemakers and jubilant shouts of “Happy New Year!” and the strains of “Auld Lang Syne.”
But, on Rosh Hashanah, as the Jewish year begins, there are no ball drops. When does the New Year begin? At sunset. There is no countdown. Instead, the worship leader proclaims the new year to the congregation. There are no noise makers — the origins of which are to drive away the evil demons. Instead, the shofar, that calls us to repentance and rebirth. Instead of “Auld Lang Syne,” there is the more beautiful and poignant “Avinu Malcheinu.”
The secular New Year is about celebration and parties. Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur is about introspection. While New Years/December 31 has its New Years resolutions, those are mostly about looking forward, not about looking back.
So, totally different moods, for two totally different seasons.
The secular New Years is about “happy.”
By contrast, on the Jewish New Year, there is no mention of “happy.”
It’s about goodness. It’s about shanah tovah — a good year.
Tovah, goodness, is not always the same thing as happy. Tovah, goodness, is mostly about what is meaningful. There is a fundamental difference between wishing that someone have a year of happiness, and the wish that they find meaning.
So, let’s think for a few minutes about “happy” — as in “happy New Year!”
The Hebrew language has many words for various states of happiness and joy. Just the seventh blessing of the sheva berachot at a wedding would give you a thesaurus of the emotions: gilah, rinah, ditzah, v’chedvah, sason, simchah — which might be translated as gladness, jubilation, cheer and delight, joy and happiness.
Of that emotional bouquet, the best known would be simchah — yes, happiness, but a special kind of happiness.
Simcha is about celebration — either the life cycle (“We are going to a simchah next weekend for Paul’s son’s wedding”) or the festival cyclel — “chag sameach!”
There is no simchah on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. The next opportunity for simchah would have to wait another five days, until we get to Sukkot — which is the ultimate simchah festival.
But, having said that, I no longer quibble when people wish me a happy new year. Because we could all use a little bit more happiness. When you consider the pandemics of loneliness and despair, of isolation and depression, that have crept into every corner of American life — all classes and ages — happiness is not such an extravagant request.
But, what kind of happiness do we seek? I return to the seventh blessing of the sheva berachot at the wedding — gilah, rinah, ditzah, v’chedvah, sason, simchah — gladness, jubilation, cheer and delight, joy and happiness. Go to a wedding, or a bar/bat mitzvah, or any kind of party, and that is what you will experience. Those are all good, but they are essentially evanescent. They depend on a celebration.
But, there is another Hebrew term for happiness, and it is time to give it its due. A Facebook friend, a prominent Jewish personage in the world, wished his friends shanah shel osher — yes, a year of happiness, but a particular species of happiness. Osher means a deep happiness, a sense of satisfaction, a sense that “my cup runneth over,” that I am full — that I am content.
That is the best version of happiness that I know, and I wish it for all of you.
One last thing.
There is another greeting for the Jewish New Year, and it is one that I have heard from my friends in Israel.
Shnat devash, a year of honey.
On the face of it, this is a close relative of wishing your friends and loved ones a good and sweet year.
But, as I ponder it, I realize something about the imagery.
We wish each other a sweet year, and we sweeten the apples that we eat during this season.
But, we could have simply sweetened those apples with sugar. Why do we use honey?
Yes, of course, it is because the Land of Israel supposedly flows with milk and honey.
But, there is more.
Honey is sweet, and it is also messy.
Sometimes our sweetness is complicated by a certain amount of messiness — because life is messy.
So, from me to all of you — shnat devash, a year of honey.
And yes, for those of us who need and crave it the most, shanah shel osher, a year of deep, inner happiness, satisfaction, and contentment.