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Are we Jews superstitious about Rosh Hashana? Those who think we are could easily point to a colorful aspect of our Rosh Hashana pageantry, when we eat special fruits whose names, taste and/or texture conjure positive prayers for a good year.
The most popular is the apple dipped in honey, which occasions our wish for a good and sweet New Year; pomegranates, when we pray for a year of merits as numerous as the pomegranate's seeds; leeks (Hebrew kartei), when we ask that God cut off (karet) our enemies; beets, silka, when we beseech God to remove (salek) our enemies; and some more modern (tongue-in-cheek) examples, like dates for the unmarried, and a mixture of raisins and celery for "a raise in da selery." We serve the head of a fish so that we may multiply like fish during the coming year, and so that Israel will be seen as the head and not the tail among the nations. All of this leads our sages to declare that "on Rosh Hashana, symbols take on a practical reality."
Certainly this sounds superstitious.
The Talmud (B.T. Kritut 5b) gives three examples which seem to substantiate this position:
1) "Rav Ami says, one who wishes to know whether he will live out the year ought to bring a candle into a house which is completely sealed off from any wind, and light that candle between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. If the light doesn't go out, we know he will live out the year."
2) "One who wishes to know if the business venture he wishes to get involved in will succeed or not, let him raise a hen. If she grows big and fat, we know his venture will succeed."
3) "And for one about to go on a journey who wishes to know if he will come back safely, let him enter a darkened house and remain there. If he sees that his shadow has a shadow, we know he shall return safely. But if he doesn't see the shadow, it's no proof that he won't return home; perhaps his disappointment and fear at not seeing a shadow of the shadow was responsible for a depression which led to his bad luck."
Now, in case you think that Rosh Hashana is a legitimate time to allow superstitions to run rampant, please remember that it's also the first of the 10 Days of Repentance, when every Jew must attempt to be as religiously punctilious as possible. And superstition is forbidden under Jewish law! Maimonides rules, in his Laws of Idolatry 12,4 (taken from B.T. Sanhedrin 65, 66).
"It is forbidden to engage in soothsaying as do the idolaters, as the Bible commands: 'Do not be involved in soothsaying.' How so? If someone says, since the bread has fallen from my mouth or the walking stick has fallen from my hands, I shall not go to the place I had intended to get to today, because if I did my business would fall away from me as wellâ€¦ And similarly [it is forbidden for] someone to makes 'signs' for himself; that if such and such happens to him, he will do this and thatâ€¦"
Along these lines, there is even a difference of opinion as to whether or not Abraham's servant Eliezer acted correctly when he established a "sign" for the choosing of a proper wife for Isaac: "The woman who offers me and my camels water to drink from the well will be a suitable wife for Isaac."
Maimonides is critical of such a sign, but the Ravad (ad loc) is vehement that Eliezer committed no transgression, and the Kesef Mishne (ad loc), Rabbi Yosef Karo, who declares that a righteous individual like Eliezer could not possibly have sinned in such a crucial decision, explains the difference: The Bible forbids soothsaying, or "signs," when the sign of a fallen piece of bread is not logically connected to the success of a business venture. In the case of Eliezer, however, he understood that the most important quality for the wife of Isaac son of Abraham was kind generosity, not only to a human stranger but even to an animal. Hence his action was not a "sign"; it was rather a shrewd test.
With this distinction in mind, we can understand the message of the Rosh Hashana signs. Our sages are teaching us "the power of positive thinking" - the importance of believing in oneself and in one's message. If one lights a candle in a room sealed off from the wind, the candle will not go out. What the sages want is that everyone will believe at the onset of the year that he/she will live to see the year's end. If you believe it, chances are you will.
And if one brings up and nurtures a hen with proper care and plentiful food, of course the hen will grow fat; and if you tend to your business venture with the same care and sensitivity, chances are that you will succeed there as well.
The correctness of my interpretation is especially proven by the third case, where it is certainly logical that - in a darkened house - the individual will see a shadow of his shadow as night is falling. And the Talmud adds that even if he doesn't, that's no proof of the failure of his business venture. Even if he should fail, it was the result of his own fear on not seeing his shadow's shadow, the fear and frustration which came because he believed he would fail. That lack of self-confidence is what we call bad luck.
This is the strength and force behind the "signs" on Rosh Hashana. If we but believe in ourselves and our mission, if we feel that God is on our side and we shall overcome, we will overcome. We will gain many more merits - as numerous as pomegranate seeds - and will vanquish our enemies. Only if you believe you're a prince will you grow up to be a king.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.