With Rosh Hashanah approaching, it’s a good time to talk about the apple dipped in honey, a classic symbol of the Jewish New Year. On Rosh Hashanah night, the entire Jewish nation the world over will dip slices of apple in a bowl of honey and wish one another, “Yehi ratzon shetechadeish aleinu shana tovah u’metukah (May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year).” There is also the custom to eat a pomegranate and say, “Yehi ratzon she’yirbu z’chuyosainu k’rimon (May it be Your will that our merits increase like the seeds of a pomegranate).” Some also have the custom of eating the head of a fish, or the head of any other kosher animal, and saying, “Let us be a head and not a tail.”
Some communities have other symbolic food items on the table at Rosh Hashanah, based on a connection between the name of that particular food and blessing for the new year. For example, the word selek, which means beets, can allude to yistalku (may our enemies depart). Temarim, which means dates, alludes to yitamu, which evokes the phrase “She’yitamu oivainu (may our enemies cease to exist).”
What is unique about the first three symbolic foods and their respective good wishes and blessings? Perhaps what is special about those three is that they refer to positive things. Namely, that we may have a good and sweet new year; that our merits increase; and that we should be a head and not a tail. This is not the case with the other symbols which evoke prayers “that those who hate us be cut off,” “that our enemies cease to exist,” etc. Those are all negative things — and on the night of Rosh Hashanah, when we wish one another “Shana tovah,” the main focus should be positive.
And that brings us right to this week’s Torah portion. At the end of Parshat Nitzavim, the Torah (Devarim 30:15-19) tells us, “Behold, I have set before you today life and goodness, and death and evil … and you shall choose life.” In the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs), Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) says, “Death and life are in the hand of the tongue” (Mishlei 18:21). Perhaps we can say that the “choosing life” of which the parshat speaks depends on the tongue — on what we choose to say, and more importantly, on what we choose not to say.
We’re told in the midrash (Vayikra Rabbah, Chapter 33) that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) “made a feast for his students and served them soft and tough tongues, and the students started selecting the soft ones and putting aside the tough ones. He said to them, ‘Know what you are doing! Just as you are selecting the soft tongues and putting aside the tough tongues, so shall you do with your own tongues!’” Rabbi Yehudah used the opportunity of his students specifically choosing the soft meat as opposed to the tough meat to teach them a moral lesson. He said: “Take note of your actions and learn that when you speak, you should also act thusly — choosing a soft and pleasant tongue, not a hard one.”
In the socially connected atmosphere that prevails nowadays, choosing to speak softly and pleasantly is of paramount importance and a good habit that everyone can resolve to take on in honor of Rosh Hashanah: to always choose positive language and a soft tongue. PJC
Rabbi Mendy Schapiro is the director of Chabad of Monroeville. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.