Toasting and Tasting by Rabbi Zell

In all likelihood, New Year’s Eve will be celebrated differently this year, if at all, given the importance of social distancing. For Jews, New Year’s Eve being celebrated differently, should not in any way be linked to a pandemic, but rather should be viewed as a perennial issue. There are those among us, who are adamantly opposed to Jews celebrating New Year’s Eve, so much so, that they regard those as having worshipped the golden calf. Hyperbole aside, there is much to be learned about celebrating New Year’s Eve, provided one is prepared to make a comparison between Rosh Hashana and the secular New Year.
The Hebrew word for new is Chadash. Nowhere in our  High Holy Day liturgy, do we find the term Shanah Chadashah. Furthermore, the term Rosh Hashana means the head of the year or the beginning of the year. Neither “new” nor “old” receive much play in Judaism. If anything, old – typically referred to as elders, rather than old people – is looked upon positively by our tradition. In Judaism, there is no “out with the old, in with the new”. In Judaism, we profit from the past and build on it. It was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook of what was to become the modern State of Israel, who reminded us: that which is old will be renewed; that which is new will be sanctified. Close to 35 years ago, during his visit to the Rome Synagogue, Pope John Paul II, with more than a modicum of respect, remarked to his Jewish hosts “you are our older brothers”. Hopefully, Pope John Paul II’s words to us were accepted with more than a modicum of honor.
  No doubt, Hallmark, along with other Greeting Card companies, have only the best of intentions in designing their product for Rosh Hashana. But traditionally, Jews have never wished one another a happy New Year. Traditionally, Jews have wished one another a good year. “Good” and “happy” are not, nor have they ever been synonymous. Judaism, being a religion of mitzvot, asks that we focus on doing a good job at living our lives, not a happy job. Happy is a reaction; good is an intention. Other than extending a wish or sentiment that the year that is coming to an end be summed up as having been a happy year, other than extending a wish that in 365 days from now one be able to look back and express happiness, it is beyond me, how one can wish another, a year of happiness. In Judaism, sameach was a wish initially reserved for the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. All three were also harvest festivals. Wishing another person, the ability to be happy because of a bountiful harvest is a beautiful sentiment. Jews don’t wish one another a happy Shabbos (Shabbat Shalom), a happy week (Shavua Tov), or a happy month (Chodesh Tov). It is therefore simply beyond me, why we would wish one another a happy year.
Can you imagine concluding Rosh Hashana services with a cacophony of “Shanah Tovah” replete with horns and streamers? Can you fathom supplanting or augmenting the Rosh Hashana finale of HaYom Te’Amtzaynu by turning to the person next to you at services, extending your hand, and asking that he or she give you his or her hand, so together, the two of you can hoist a mug for times long past? Rather than spending time to toast the past, our tastes tend toward the future. Jim Beam and Jack Daniels may be perennial guests at the end of December, but come the beginning of Tishri, Rosh Hashana tables host slices of apple and scoops of honey.
Other than behaving in an unacceptable way, because of too much imbibing, as well as becoming swept away in the frivolousness of the festivities, my main concern, come December 31st, is that those who celebrate, fail to contemplate. The message of Rosh Hashana is crystal clear. For us,  New Years’ is the time to recognize the creation of the world, as well as the opportunity to acknowledge G-d as King of the universe. In all too many cases, come December 31st, people are already too fuzzy to recognize anything other than an invitation of “how about another one?”. 
I pray that the day comes, when a heartfelt L’Chaim of sobriety, supplants cheers of inebriety, and where the shanda of intemperance is replaced with naches of reverence. 


By Rabbi Shawn Zell

Calendar confluence aside, with the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet coinciding with the 25th of December, one would do well to ponder how very differently Jews and Christians mark significant events in the history of their religion. Jews fast, Christians feast. Name a Jewish holiday where Jews celebrate the birth of any individual, who had a profound effect on our people or our religion. Name a Jewish holiday where Jews fast, not because of what the enemy did, but because of what we Jews should have done or neglected to do. Jews fast  – at least some Jews fast – on the Tenth of Tevet, because Nebuchadnezzar, a Babylonian emperor had no respect for Jews or Jewish holy places. We Jews should fast? Iraqis, the modern-day descendants of biblical Babylonians should fast, for the havoc wreaked and the carnage carried out by their blood-thirsty ancestors.
Jews suppress, Christians spread. Come Pesach, an unending debate continues to crop up as to whether Christians should be invited to a seder. Along those very same lines, can you fathom a billboard outside a synagogue in September, with the following announcement: Join us for Yom Kippur Services, Monday evening September 15th, and all day Tuesday, September 16th. People of all faiths welcome. Yet it is a mitzvah (sic) for Christians to spread joy to the world, to celebrate a Bethlehem birth. Right or wrong, there are those of us uncomfortable with non-Jews participating in religious rituals or in attendance at services any time of the year. Contrarily, Christian parishioners and clergy are in ecstasy when those of other religions, especially Jews, join them for a worship service, any time during the year.
Jews daven. Christians worship. Unless it is in private, or within the four walls of a sanctuary, most Jews are uncomfortable turning to G-d in worship. Say “let us worship” to a Jew, and you will elicit a reaction that is anything, but worship related. Say “let us worship” to a Christian, and immediately there will be a bowing of the head, as well as outstretching of the arm, as the Christian prepares to join hands in worship. But should it happen, that a Jew does turn to G-d in a most heartfelt, spiritual manner, the communication that ensues, is often within the framework of arguing or deal-making. There is precedent for this, in our tradition. Abraham had no qualms in telling G-d that He, G-d should be ashamed of Himself for even entertaining the notion of destroying the “Twin Cities”. Doesn’t G-d realize that innocent, guiltless people will also be swept away? Jacob, Abraham’s grandson,  had no qualms in working out a deal with G-d. “Make sure that I have bread to eat and clothing to wear and I will cut You in for ten percent”. Any self-respecting Christian would be in shock talking to G-d in such a fashion. Christians view such remarks as sacrilege.
Last, but not least, it is vital that the relationship between the human and the divine be one that is anchored in belief. Both practicing Christians as well observant Jews maintain that belief is the sine qua non for their relationship with G-d. Christians differ however from Jews in the understanding of that belief. For Christians, it is crucial that they believe in G-d. For Jews, it is crucial that G-d believe in them.
Other than fasting in observance of the tragedy that befell our people in the year 586 B.C.E. and preparing for Shabbat, I have no idea what Jews in this country will be doing, December 25th.
An excellent opportunity presents itself, however, for us to stand back, reflect, and appreciate what defines us as Jews. As Jews fast and Christians feast, as we typically suppress our observance while they spread the good cheer of Christianity, as they attend Churches worship and we go to shul to daven and as they reaffirm their belief in their creator while we attempt to convince our creator to believe in us, perhaps this December 25th is an excellent time for us Jews to ask one another “do you see what I see”?

Never on a Tuesday

By Rabbi Shawn Zell

Betcha didn’t know that Chanukah can never begin on a Monday evening. It then follows that Tuesday can never be the first day of the Festival of Lights. Even though definitive explanations are sorely lacking for this phenomenon, I should like to attempt to provide an answer. Tuesday was the only day of creation where we read: “And G-d saw that it was good” twice. The only other day that comes somewhat close, is the sixth and final day of creation, where we read: “And G-d saw that it was very good”.  While one can speculate, what caused G-d to accord Tuesday double approval, perhaps it is time to shed light on the corollary of G-d’s double vision.
Chanukah is predicated upon, the Jewish people seeing that Greek civilization, an anathema to the Torah, was good. Jews in ancient Israel were head over heels when it came to the way Greeks emphasized the human body. Judaism’s respect for the human body could not compete with Greek glorification of the human body. Add to that, the sense of ecstasy provided by the human body in Greek culture, it is a miracle that only some Jews, however many, were prepared to cast off the teachings of the Torah, while Greeks were casting off their apparel. However impressive a double dose of “G-d saw it was good” might have been, it soon fell out of focus, as Hellenized Jews stared at that which as tantalizing. It might very well be, that it would be in the poorest of taste to begin the festival of Chanukah on Tuesday, the very day that G-d merely saw, yet the Hellenists stared.
Chanukah serves as a denunciation of Greek logic. Chanukah stresses that which is contrary to logic. One message of Chanukah, is that small, ill-equipped, poorly trained armies, do in fact defeat large well-equipped, well-trained armies in battle. The other message of Chanukah is that a limited one-day supply of oil proceeds to burn for an additional seven days. Combined, these two phenomena thumbed their noses at Greek logic. To be sure, logic plays a significant role in Judaism as well. Nevertheless, Judaism is constantly cautioning us, to leave a little to G-d. It may very well be, that Hellenized Jews were also prepared to leave a little to G-d as well, provided they cast most of their lot to Athena, Apollo, and Zeus. As such, it was entirely possible that these same Jews, in contemplating Judaism, saw that it was good. In contemplating Hellenism however they saw that it was better. Being reminded that many Jews saw that an alternate system was better, on the very same day that G-d saw it was good – twice no less, is not a very good day to begin the festival of Chanukah.
I have no idea how many misunderstood words appear in the English language. I do know, that “perfect” is one of them. In my opinion, “perfect” should be at the top of the list. On the one hand, the Torah tells us that G-d is perfect (Deuteronomy 32:4); on the other hand, we learn that G-d a jealous and avenging G-d, G-d avenges and is filled with wrath (Nachum 1:2). Such a dichotomy can only exist when one applies the Greek concept of perfect to G-d. “Perfect” as understood by the ancient Greeks is immutable and unchangeable. “Perfect” as understood by Judaism, means “as good as it gets”. Unlike us mere mortals, G-d’s jealousy is well-founded, as is His vengeance and His wrath. Furthermore, G-d is neither immutable nor unchangeable. The exact opposite is the case. Changing G-d’s mind is one excellent reason for prayer. Chanukah is the only festival that embodies these attributes. When G-d witnessed the jealousy, vengeance, and wrath of the Chashmonaim, He was so moved, (in contradistinction to the Greek “immutable”)  that He rewarded the human act of “few against many” with a Divine “few against many”. How then, can the festival of Chanukah possibly begin on a Tuesday, a day that emphasizes  “and G-d saw it was good” when its root cause was Hellenized Jews errantly adapting themselves to Greek culture so that in their eyes, they saw “it was perfect”?
Typically, Tuesday is an auspicious day. Many Jewish weddings take place on Tuesday. Tuesday adds a new dimension to changes undertaken in one’s life, such as moving to a new home. Come Chanukah, a festival brought about by Hellenists staring at the human body, instead of focusing on the spiritual, a celebration reminding us that even though Hellenists may have seen good in their Judaism, they saw better being offered by the outside world, a time of year when Hellenists set their sights on perfect rather than good, it is understandable why the festival does not begin on Tuesday(Monday after dark), a day emphasized by G-d seeing that it was good.