Friday, September 22, 2006

Staying Awake on Rosh Hashana

This Table Talk is dedicated in honor of Marc and Lily Sarosi of Mill Valley, California, who have done so much to bring Jewish learning into their lives and their community. To dedicate a future Table Talk, please write tabletalk at (change the "at" to an "@".

What's Rosh Hashana?

It's the Jewish New Year, right?


That's actually a lie.

First of all, according to the Talmud, it's not just for Jews, and moreover, there are four "new years"....

So what's the Rosh Hashana that is happening this weekend all about?

It's the day when our karma is fixed for the coming year. That means that how we think and act on Rosh Hashana (from tonight through Sunday) will affect us the next 12 months.

So ask at your table: What kind of year do you want to have? Happy? Then act happy. Patient? Then act patient. Mindful? Then act mindful. Zealous? Then don't take a nap. Thankful? Then make a bracha on your food. Prosperous? Then be generous of spirit and pocket (now you know why there is a universal Jewish custom of increasing charitable donations from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur).

Everything you do should be oriented towards this positive thinking, which is why we eat sweet foods on Rosh Hashana.

So in the spirit of the day, try teaching this song to your table that I learned from my kids:
    Dip the apple
    in the honey
    make a bracha
    loud and clear
    Shana tova
    have a happy
    sweet new year.
    (sung to the tune of "Oh My Darlin' Clementine")

+ + + +

Every Jewish holiday commemorates something, right?
  • Passover – going out of Egypt
  • Shavuot – Mount Sinai
  • Hannukah – the Maccabean War
  • Rosh Hashana - ??
What seminal event marked the first Rosh Hashana?

According to a popular misconception, Hebrew tradition claims that Rosh Hashana marks the origin of the cosmos 5,767 years ago. Based on this answer, it’s easy to dismiss the entire Torah (which is the foundation of all of Judaism) as fable, because it claims that only 5,767 years have passed since the first Rosh Hashana.

In fact, Jewish tradition states categorically that our 5,767-year-old calendar begins not with the cosmos but with primordial "Adam" and “Eve”. It’s easy to get the number: the Torah mentions everyone’s lifespan and how old they were when their children were born. Second-grade math.

Now, according to Judaism, who were Adam and Eve? Nowhere does the Torah say that they were the first homo sapiens. All that we know from the Torah is that they were the last creatures created. Moreover, according to Medieval rabbinic sources (who claim to be transmitting ancient tradition), upon the advent of Adam and Eve there were other human-like creatures running around.

Thus, it is entirely consistent with Jewish tradition to understand Adam and Eve not as the first people but the first people with a certain kind of awareness or mental capacity – we might call it “Divine” or “transcendental” awareness: that is, an ability to conceptualize and relate to an Infinite Creator.

To reiterate: Rosh Hashana commemorates the advent of God-conscious humans some 5,767 years ago, according to Jewish oral tradition. It’s interesting that that number coincides with the approximate advent of civilization in the Middle East. That coincidence is enough food for thought for Rosh Hashana. But there’s more.

A year ago, the New York Times reported a remarkable discovery (”Researchers say human brain is still evolving,” September 9, 2005). It seems that there is new scientific evidence that a human genetic change occurred in the middle-East about 5,800 years ago which enhanced higher brain functions. Interesting coincidence.

What makes the dating coincidence even more interesting is recent research upholding the veracity of oral traditions in oral cultures. It's easy for a modern literate society to dismiss such legends as mythological, but it seems that ancient minds were far more adept than we at retaining information accurately via oral transmission. If so, then it should not at all surprise us that the descendents of the genetically enhanced humans would have retained an accurate tradition about the historicity of their genetic line.

How does this view of history and Judaism affect our understanding of Rosh Hashana?

First of all, Rosh Hashana is not the Jewish New Year. It’s humanity’s New Year. (When I first learned that I started wishing my Gentile friends a Happy New Year around Rosh Hashana time. I got a lot of blank stares and quickly abandoned the practice.)

But the Talmud makes an explicit point: what happens on Rosh Hashana affects not just Jews but the entire world.

What happens? The first day of the year, like other first steps, is an opportunity to set the course of the next 12 months’ journey. Like sending a rocket into space, getting the initial coordinates right is crucial to the long-term goal. You get that liftoff wrong by one degree and a few months later the rocket will be millions of miles off-course. Rosh Hashana is a unique day in the annual cycle of life to check the compass and make adjustments. How we conduct ourselves on Rosh Hashana will, according to the Talmud, fix our karma for the entire year.

That’s heavy. It’s an awesome opportunity, and worth a few minutes of preparation. Here’s what to do.

Before the holiday begins, try to define what you’re living for. What are your greatest aspirations? What gives your life the most meaning? Work it out. Get it clear. But don't think that this clarity will happen automatically. You have to set aside some time to THINK.

Then, on Rosh Hashana itself, whether or not you go to synagogue, spend some serious time contemplating and internalizing your life mission. The more you can get it ingrained in your brain, the more you will be able to live and work toward that mission in the coming year.

Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy, peaceful, sweetly challenging year to come.

(For a copy of my flyer, “20 Questions to Ask Yourself on Rosh Hashana”, send an email to RHQ at - change the "at" to an "@")

Here is a link to my Rosh Hashana / Yom Kippur classes this week:

Mill Valley, Calif., 60 min.

(Table Talk is a product of Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc, a 501c3 non-profit organization which is made possible thanks to readers like you. This is shareware - if you find it useful, please consider becoming an official member with a tax-deductible contribution at one of the addresses below.)

Jewish Spiritual Literacy, Inc.
5814 Narcissus Ave
Baltimore, MD 21215


Oyster said...

Do you live in Mill Valley?

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

Hi Oyster,

I do not - but it sometimes feels like I do!

I travel there (and environs) monthly to teach classes, and on the off-weeks teach via telephone to a handful of Jews there.

(I had been based in Palo Alto for 7 years.)

My newest group in the city is a group of Jewish newliweds in the Mission. Who knew there were couples in the Mission? And who knew there were Jewish couples in SF?


Tnanks for visiting...

Oyster said...

Hi Rabbi Seinfeld,

So you live in the Bay Area? Awesome! Always excited to meet other J-bloggers in the area.

Have you ever checked out the Mission Minyan?

K'tivah v'khatimah tovah.