Word of the Day / Al Rosh Simhateinu: If I Forget Thee, O Solar Panel

From ashes on the head to smashing a glass with the foot: Why Jerusalem should be set 'above all other joys.'

Shoshana Kordova
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Robinson's Arch in the Old City of Jerusalem. Credit: Haaretz
Shoshana Kordova

Pope Francis’ visit to Israel this week was an opportunity, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the cabinet, to show the world the “real Israel,” the “only country in the Middle East that guarantees total freedom of religion.”

Netanyahu’s description did not sit well with Channel 2 culture reporter Ilan Lukach.

“After they show Pope Francis this country, I’d be glad if someone would show it to me too,” Lukach said in a commentary on the prime minister’s statement. “By the way, if preserving the right to ritual and state is al rosh simhateinu [literally ‘at the head of our joy’] today, maybe at some point we can organize some protection of the rights of the secular and the nonbelievers on both sides. We live here too.”

Lukach may have been using the phrase al rosh simhateinu – often meaning "top priority" – in a plea for freedom from religion, but it is best known as a paean to Jerusalem. The phrase is a slight tweak of Psalm 137 – “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy [al rosh simhati]” (5-6).

It is particularly relevant to Jerusalem Day, which is celebrated this Wednesday to mark the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 and has come to be closely associated with religious Zionism and the political right.

Jewish sages interpreted setting Jerusalem above one’s chiefest joy to mean publicly mourning the loss of the Temple even at the happiest times. And what could be happier for shidduch-loving Jews than a wedding?

In Tractate Bava Batra, the word rosh, meaning “head,” is taken literally. “What’s al rosh simhati?” the Talmud asks. Rabbi Yitzhak suggests ashes on the groom’s head, in memory of the destruction of the Temple. Eventually this turned into today’s custom of breaking a glass, for the same reason.

It’s no coincidence that at religious weddings, the breaking of the glass is often followed by the singing of “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.”

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Nowadays, though al rosh simhateinu retains its association with the holy city, it is also used to refer to other top priorities.

That's why you get headlines like "Housing is al rosh simhateinu," which appeared on the Haredi website Behadrei Haredim in 2009, about an announcement that 3,000 new housing units would be built for the ultra-Orthodox, and "Solar electricity is al rosh simhat the politicians," on the Green Logic blog, about what it says is the dubious financial logic behind plans to put solar panels on the Knesset roof.

If solar panels make you jump for joy, on Jerusalem Day or any other day of the year, just make sure to watch your head.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.