What is in a Rosh Hashanah greeting?
On the Jewish New Year, Jews around the world greet each other differently. But one common thread ties all ‘Shana Tova’ blessings.
What’s in a greeting? When we pass an acquaintance on the way to work or school we may nod and mutter a casual “Good Morning.” If we see a friend at the grocery store we exclaim “Hey, what’s going on?” When we run into someone we have not seen for a while, we may cry out, “Where have you been?”
We often greet one another based on our relationship with that person. Judaism, however, takes the art of greeting one step further. Here I am not just referring to the generous offers that often accompany a Jewish greeting, like, “would you like something to eat?” Jewish greetings reflect the nature of our relationships and relate to our Jewish context. Jewish holidays come with greetings attached to them to help convey the meaning of the day. For example, on Shabbat we wish one another “Shabbat Shalom,” a “Peaceful Shabbat.” More than just a “hello,” this greeting communicates one of the fundamental meanings of Shabbat — a wish for peace.
While “Shabbat Shalom” is the predominant greeting on Shabbat, I learned from Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, that many different customs for greeting exist on Rosh Hashanah. The prevalent practice among Ashkenazi Jews is “L’Shana Tova Ti’kateivu v’Tekhateimu,” “You should be written and sealed for a good year.” This is often shortened to simply “Shana Tova,” “a good year.” This greeting expresses a basic hope we all have on Rosh Hashanah — that we be inscribed in the Book of Life for another good year. Other greeting customs also use the metaphor of the Book of Life to convey the essence of the holiday, but use it in a different way.
Similar to the Ashkenazi custom, Kurdish Jews greet each other with a variation on this theme, saying: “T’kateiv b’sefer chaim tovim,” “You should be written in the book of good life.” Instead of focusing on a “good year,” the Kurdish greeting emphasizes a “good life.”
Rabbi Abraham Danzig, writing in 18th century Vilna, records his Rosh Hashanah greeting as “T’kateiv v’Tekhatem l’alter l’chaim tovim,” “You should be written and sealed immediately for a good life.” Rabbi Danzig references a midrash that tzaddikim, righteous people, are immediately written in the Book of Life. By wishing people an instant inscription, Rabbi Danzig also flatters them, putting the people he greets in the category of tzaddikim.
Many Sephardic Jews greet each other with “L’shana Tova Ti’kateiv, Tizku
l’shanim rabbot,” “You should be written for a good year, and you should merit many years.” Sephardim who use this phrase do not limit their blessing to one year, but rather wish each other many good years to come. The response to this greeting is “Tizke v’Tikhye v’Taarikh Yamim,” “You should merit, and you should live, and you should lengthen days.” In other words, “right back at you!”
An inscription in the Book of Life is not enough for the Jews of Yemen, they want to be written in the Book of Remembrance as well. “Tay’khateiv b’sefer ha’chaim v’basefer ha’zikaron,” “May you be written in the Book of Life and the Book of Remembrance.” Yemenite Jews want to make sure to cover all their bases.
While our diverse Jewish world may phrase Rosh Hashanah greetings differently, we are united by the main idea behind all of them: That God should grant us a healthy and happy new year. Amen!
Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.