Antony Wolkovitzky

About Eating Dates on High Holidays

An AI generated image of a Rosh Hashanah table with DALL-E
An AI generated image of a Rosh Hashanah table with DALL-E

So many of our old traditions often have this primal brutality to them.

For Jews, the High Holidays period is perhaps the time when it’s most noticeable.

There’s a reason why these days are called in Hebrew “Hayamim Hanoraim”: which could be best translated from the archaic Hebrew as “the days of awe”, but in modern Hebrew, the meaning of this term is even more foreboding: “the horrible days”.

The celebration begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, but also the first in ten days of penitence. During these days, according to tradition, there’s a trial for each of us in the heavens. A legal drama, of a sort, centred around each one of us, that will decide our future in the upcoming year.

That’s why the celebrations of Rosh Hashana aren’t supposed to be all as sweet as most think. It’s true that on that day we eat an apple in honey, and wish each other a “good and sweet year”, but it’s also a time of self-reflection on all our misbehaviours and mistakes that have been made during the previous year. That’s why on the same day we also wish each other to be “written in the book of life” at the conclusion of the heavenly trial.

These ten days of penitence are culminating in the so-called “judgment day”, Yom Kippur, which is completely dedicated to paying, fasting, and abstaining from pleasure.

The ancient “brutality” doesn’t end there: On the Sukkot holiday, which comes up 4 days later and lasts for 7 days, we are expected to sleep outdoors in huts.

As a child, while growing up in Israel, these traditions looked completely normal to me. Only after living some time abroad, and after trying to explain our holidays to non-Jews, I began to notice how bizarre and needlessly harsh some of our traditions might look to outsiders.

This year, while scrolling through my Facebook Memories, I rediscovered the following post that I wrote in 2016:

“There isn’t a nice way to explain to a non-Jew that we eat dates on Rosh HaShana to represent the death of our enemies.”

Back then, it attracted some valid criticism for not being accurate. One person pointed out that the original phrase regarding this tradition talks about “the END of our enemies”, and not the “death of our enemies”, and that this leaves some room for the interpretation that our enemies would become our friends.

While I agree that that’s a very positive interpretation of this sentence, we shouldn’t fool ourselves that this was the original meaning.

As mentioned earlier: Many old traditions often have this primal brutality in them. This isn’t a coincidence, considering the brutality of the historical periods in which they were shaped.

I believe this is true not only in Judaism, but also in Islam and Christianity, and probably in many other ancient religions as well.

Our traditions weren’t formed in the age of enlightenment or the era of political correctness. Intolerant or seemingly backward concepts and traditions exist in every religion and should be definitely reformed and adapted to modern reality, but this doesn’t mean that they should be whitewashed.

We can give a new, and more tolerant meaning to old traditions, but it doesn’t mean that we should sacrifice the truth in the process, just for the sake of appeasing our feelings.

Misconceptions(as well as misdeeds) of the past should be owned and acknowledged because this only this way can we move forward. Acting otherwise will only preserve the misconception that our traditions are written in stone and cannot reform and evolve with time.

About the Author
Born in Soviet Belarus, but grew up in Israel. Graduate of a bachelor's degree in Political Science from the University of Haifa, as part of which also studied International Relations at the University of Warsaw. Lived for about two and a half years in the EU (Poland, France, Greece), and was active in European Students for Liberty.
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