Monthly Archives: August 2013

The forgotten Rosh Hashanah

What comes to mind when you think of Rosh Hashanah?

It’s the Jewish New Year?  The day when all creation is judged by the Israelite god Hashem for the coming year?  The day we dip the apple in the honey to symbolize a sweet new year?  The day when we engage in a very long prayer service, most of which focuses on declaring Hashem’s dominion over the world?  The day when we hear the shofar blowing (ram’s horn)?

Turns out that none of the above, with the possible exception of the shofar blowing (depending what the word t’ru’ah means in Lev. 23:24 and Num. 29:1), appears in the Bible!

On the other hand, the Bible tells us some beautiful things about the holiday we now call Rosh Hashanah that almost none of us was ever taught in school!  How about giving food to the poor, for instance?

When the Israelites returned to the Land of Israel from their exile in Persia in the late 6th or 5th century BCE, we are told in Nehemia Chapter 8 that they knew very little about their religion but wanted to learn.  When they discovered all the sins they had been committing all this time, it was the first day of the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar – the day we now call Rosh Hashanah.

Here’s what happened:

All the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed Hashem, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

(Nehemia 8 – English Standard Version)

“Send portions to anyone who has nothing ready?”

“All the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions?”

Who ever thought of Rosh Hashanah as a day when we send portions to anyone who has nothing ready!

Rosh Hashanah is one of the few holidays that a good chunk of the Jewish population still celebrates.  How many needy people could be served if all who celebrate Rosh Hashanah would send portions to anyone who has nothing ready?

Finally, one other thing we see clearly in the passage above that directly contradicts the practice of some today is that Rosh Hashanah was not a day to cry over one’s sins.  As you just read, the people were doing so, and the Levites told them to stop!

So if you know anyone who will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah on Sep. 5, please show them Nehemiah 8, or simply tell them: “Eat the fat and drink sweet wine, send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, and do not be grieved.”  You will have made the world a better place. 🙂


No debate – circumcision is great!

Why is there still any debate among the masses as to whether circumcision of newborn males is a good thing, when there seems to be no debate among scientists and medical experts?

A new analysis of the studies conducted thus far on whether circumcision affects sexual function in any way concludes:

“The highest-quality studies suggest that medical male circumcision has no adverse effect on sexual function, sensitivity, sexual sensation, or satisfaction.”

This comes about a year after the American Academy of Pediatrics declared:

“According to a systematic and critical review of the scientific literature, the health benefits of circumcision include lower risks of acquiring HIV, genital herpes, human papilloma virus and syphilis. Circumcision also lowers the risk of penile cancer over a lifetime; reduces the risk of cervical cancer in sexual partners, and lowers the risk of urinary tract infections in the first year of life.”

The AAP went so far in its statement to suggest that, since the health benefits of infant male circumcision are so well-established, the procedure should be covered by insurance!

“The AAP believes the health benefits are great enough that infant male circumcision should be covered by insurance, which would increase access to the procedure for families who choose it.”

Then why do we still have some courts in Europe trying to ban circumcision?  If it’s not for health reasons, then…?

How to apologize (a.k.a. ask for meḥila)

One of the most beautiful and beneficial Jewish traditions, in my opinion, is using the Hebrew month of Elul – the month prior to Rosh Hashana – to work on ourselves and to ask forgiveness (meḥila in Hebrew) from those we have wronged.  Just imagine if all who celebrate the New Year on January 1 would use the month of December as a time to improve themselves and shore up their relationships.

In addition, the ancient Jewish approaches towards accomplishing these tasks contain timeless psychological wisdom.  Two of the basic components of teshuva (repentance), as Rabbeinu Yonah laid out in his 13th century classic Gates of Repentance, are remorse and confession.

One thing I’ve long felt is misunderstood when it comes to apologies is that simply saying, “I’m sorry,” or “Do you forgive me?” does not really accomplish much – if the goal is to gain forgiveness and to mend fences.  It seems to me that apologizing is effective only when it includes both remorse and confession – meaning:

1)      Admitting that I was wrong, and

2)      Enunciating to the other person precisely what I did wrong.

Note that, in Judaism, confession isn’t just “I confess: I messed up.”  It’s “I confess: I messed up, and this is how I messed up.”  As the Yom Kippur confession ritual goes, “Forgive us… for the sin that we sinned before you by doing X.”

Both elements – remorse and confession – are important in order to accomplish what an apology is supposed to accomplish – i.e. to show the other person that I now realize what I have done to that person.

So a big pet peeve of mine is when someone thinks he’s apologizing, but he’s really not.  The most common examples I find are:

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” or

“I’m sorry for anything you feel I did wrong to you,” or even

“I’m sorry if I hurt you in any way.”

Any apology that begins “I’m sorry” and has the subject “you” soon after is not an apology!  You are not showing the person you’ve realized what you’ve done to him/her!!

The last example – “I’m sorry if I hurt you in any way” is a little better, because at least you’re accepting some sort of responsibility for hurting the person.  But you’re doing so only contingently, and so you’re showing that you do not truly realize that you did anything hurtful.

Here’s my favorite Biblical example of an effective apology (Numbers 21:5-7):

The people spoke against YHWH and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food [i.e. the manna from heaven].”  Then YHWH sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.  And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against YHWH and against you.

The Israelite god Hashem (YHWH) and Moses immediately forgive them, and Moses creates the Nehushtan of American Medical Association fame to heal them.


The Israelites’ apology is only five words long in the Hebrew, yet it contains both elements of an effective apology:

1)      Admitting that I did something wrong (“We have sinned,”)

2)      Stating to the other person what I did wrong (“for we have spoken against Hashem and against you).

And so Hashem and Moses very appropriately accept the apology immediately.

A more recent example of an effective apology was when a Major League baseball pitcher threw one of the few perfect games in baseball history, except that the first-base umpire Jim Joyce called the last batter in the game safe at first.  Replays showed that the umpire blew the call, and it wasn’t even close.

It’s not like the pitcher could have said, “Oh well; I’ll just throw another perfect game.”  So how could the umpire possibly redeem himself?  Yet Mr. Joyce came through with such an effective apology that not only did he redeem himself in the eyes of the pitcher and popular opinion, he garnered greater respect than he had before the incident.  Here’s how:

He really admitted he did something wrong, and he very clearly stated what he did wrong.  He showed tons of remorse and did some serious confession.

So some simple everyday examples of effective apologies?

Honey, I’m very sorry; you were expecting me to bring dinner home tonight, and I didn’t.

I’m sorry, my friend.  I spoke behind your back, instead of going to straight to you.

I’m sorry, my son/daughter.  I wasn’t there for you as a parent when you needed one.

Remorse and confession – simple!  Not always easy, of course.  But simple nonetheless!

So maybe next time you’ve messed up, try it out.  Think “I have to do two things: acknowledge that I did something wrong (remorse) and state what I did wrong (confession).”

Let us know if it works!

Finally, what do you do when you want to mend fences with someone but you actually don’t think you did anything wrong?  Here’s an interesting article that just came out in Harvard Business Review that suggests a way to have the confession without the remorse and still gain some benefit, by showing that you’re aware of what effect your actions had on the other person:  Enjoy!

How to protest – the Jewish way

Since we see a lot of protests these days ranging from angry, loud, but civil to angry, loud, and violent, I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if we would protest the way our sages reportedly did some 1850 or so years ago:

The government [of Rome] had issued a decree that they [the Jews] should not study the Torah, that they should not circumcise their sons, and that they should profane the Sabbath.

What did Yehudah ben Shammu’a and his colleagues do?  They went and consulted a certain matron whom all the Roman notables used to visit. She said to them, “Go and demonstrate at night time.” They went and demonstrated at night [saying]:

“Alas, in heaven’s name, are we not your brothers, are we not the sons of one father and are we not the sons of one mother?  Why are we different from every nation and tongue that you issue such harsh decrees against us?”

The decrees were thereupon annulled, and that day was declared a feast day.

[Babylonian Talmud: Rosh Hashana 19a]