It is hard to keep track of the appropriate salutations this time of year. Of course there is Shana Tova (Good Year), that one starts saying to anyone and everyone a few weeks before Rosh Hashana. And then a few days before the holiday, you can add to that Chag Samayach (Joyous Festival). One of the special things about living in Israel is being in full synch with the Jewish calendar. Each week, starting on Thursday, we move into Shabbat Shalom and on Saturday night, shavua tov (have a good week), and each holiday season has its special salutations. When one talks about what it means for Israel to be a Jewish country, this integration of the rhythm of the Jewish calendar is prominent for me.
In the 10-day period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the entire country moves into “G’mar Hatima Tova” mode, with some people adding “have an easy fast” (Tzom Kal). Of course you exchange the greeting with friends, family and work colleagues. But you also exchange it with the check-out person at the supermarket, taxi drivers, the plumber, the hairdresser and you even hear it in the recorded announcements on busses. Hmmm. The meaning but not the literal translation of G’mar Hatima Tova is roughly, May you be inscribed (sealed) in the Book of Life. The inscription presumably begins on Rosh Hashanah and is sealed on Yom Kippur. That is pretty heavy. If some random person on the street said to you that they hope you will be inscribed in the book of life, you might ask what they were smoking. Or in Woody Allen terms, explain that you are due back on planet earth (from Annie Hall, of course).
And it is not a religious thing at all. Totally secular folks who do not fast on Yom Kippur or peek into the machzor (Yom Kippur prayer book) wish you a G’mar Hatima Tova. I did not grow up with this in New York, although I do recall that seriously religious people might wish it to each other in über Ashkenazik -– gmar hasima toiva, or sometimes we would say G’mar Tov. I have noticed that the greeting G’mar Hatima Tova is now used more prevalently among diaspora Jews as well. But there, it is exchanged amongst people who at least know each other.
So how do I feel about this? Actually I like it. It definitely has more pizzazz than just Happy New Year. I doubt that most Israelis wishing you to be inscribed in the book of life actually give any thought to the phrase at all. But some time back, when this salutation started being used, people did understand the deeper meaning, and said it with the genuine intentention of imparting the blessing. Nobody ever said we were light-weights.
Perhaps it is time to start a new tradition for Sukkot, the current greeting is pretty blasé with the usual Chag Samayach. Sukkot actually is the holiday known for being celebrated with extreme happiness. But on a deeper level it is the holiday that relates to the temporary nature of things, recollections of 40 years of desert wandering, The Sukkah doesn’t have a roof, reminding us that we are subject to the vicissitudes of nature. The lulav, etrog, aravot and hadasim remind us of the harvest, and of the recurring cycles of nature and life. The holiday stresses temporariness, but as human beings we strive for stability. And so, my blessing for you on this holiday is: may you find stability. Wishing you a Chag Samayach Ve’yatziv.