Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

New Year Thoughts

Morning of the eve of a new year. I have done mundane things that to me, mark the changing of the season: I switch and turn the mattresses twice yearly: before pesakh (Passover), and before rosh hashana: six months minus two weeks apart (sukkot/ Tabernacles is exactly six months from Passover– but close enough), and back to that point in a minute. I shopped yesterday; the crush today will be crazy. I have sorted files that have needed that for longer than I wish to say. Finally got a print hung. I listened to a moving presentation about the nusakh (liturgy) and music of rosh hashana by two who clearly love both, and recalled the years when I led these prayers and how deeply moving that was for me and how it changed the experience of my own tefilla, very much.

I find the seasonal placement of this holiday, along with the significance Jews give it, very meaningful, not just in the head, but in the combination of head and senses. The days have noticeably shortened. The light is not just less quantitatively; it is qualitatively different– it was already a month ago. I noticed a change in the light I could not quite put my finger on, and then a friend cited me the Talmud that speaks of this, saying that once tu be’av (the 15th day of the month of Av, which usually falls in August) has come, the light here in Israel changes (and the quote is from the Babylonian Talmud). It is hot yet but we know that will change, and the nights, when it is cool– chilly, even– are already lengthening. Even when it is a hot day, we know that day lasts far less time than just a few weeks ago.

One would have to be utterly tone deaf not to “get” the message from all this about mortality, of the finitude of time– ours, at least, though not of the Author of all this; of the fact that we lease, not own, our time here. Rosh Hashana is serious, it is about mortality, who we are, and are not, in this scheme of things, and Who is not subject to these vagaries; about what we are making of our Time. I am very in synch with what this religion does with all this, and have never understood secular New Year, with the crazed celebration which seemed to me, denial of finitude, of the reality of our existence, in drink and senseless revelry. Or, another way I did not feel at home in America. And yet, for all the sobriety, Rosh Hashana is very joyous. It is a remarkable combination of sobriety and joy I do not entirely understand but certainly, experience.

This time of year, when I lived in the US and had been here for the summer, was always something I dreaded. I would be leaving, or have already left, and it felt awful. My guts, it felt, taken. Already the first time I was here, for 2.5 months in that first, magical summer, as a child, I felt, with the approach of leaving here, and the counting of– how many days do we have left?– a microcosm of life and death.

As a child, too, I felt that autumn, with the dying and falling of leaves everywhere, the shortening of the light, was an intimation of death, and I hated it. Winter, with snow, was different, but this just long transition of dying– I hated it. Here though, end of August comes and now, for the third year, I stay, and September and me continuing to be here have become a moment of joy and renewed wonder and boundaryless gratitude, the more so because I know that (my) time is not boundaryless.

So, back to the bifurcation of the year, the six-month marker: these holidays– Rosh Hashana and the rest, and then, pesakh, bifurcate the year. Rosh Hashana is entirely universal. Hayom harat olam, we say again again, after the birth-pang-like cry of the shofar: today is the birthday of the world, literally, the world’s pregnancy. Mortality and confronting Time is as universal as it gets. My dear cousin, Ruthie, asked me once, in those conversations I so treasured and treasure, what then, is Jewish about this? Obviously, fundamentally, it isn’t. But we are humans, we Jews! and this is how our people have chosen to ponder all this, and how grateful I feel to have this inheritance of meaning, this mapping of human—Jewish sensibility onto the natural cycle of the year. Sukkot, as we know, is many things but also when sacrifices were offered for all the nations of the world in our most Jewish Temple. We are who we are, Jews, and we are part of the ocean of humanity, and of the mortality which marks us all.

Pesakh is the other pole: utterly the national birthday of this people. We are and do both.

I do much look forward to encountering those once-a-year texts, and that music, and the combination of text, and music, and movement, the swaying and bowing we do and yes, the declaring of our nothingness, and that in this life, that is everything, and what are we making of it?

The quiet of the silent prayers. The incredible peace of the all-white talit I use in this season, flung over my head, the talit, hooding me. How it does not block out light but filters it in its whiteness and bathes me in warm light and comforts my soul. I will say she’he’hiyanu: who has kept us alive and brought us to this day– be’ lev maleh: with a full, aware, and grateful heart. This human, this Jew.

Shana tova.

[Here is the Talmud source about the changing—a waning of sunlight here already after Tu Be’av—that is, in the height of summer:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף לא עמוד א

רבי אליעזר הגדול אומר: מחמשה עשר באב ואילך תשש כוחה של חמה: Rabbi Elazar the Great said: from the 15th of Av and on the power of the sun lessens].

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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