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  • Rabbi Max Davis

A sweet, not sour, New Year

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

The Chofetz Chayim has it in for borscht on Rosh Hashanah. It’s a close call for pickled herring as well.

...יש נמנעים לבשל בר"ה מיני חומץ בארש"ט וכדומה וע"כ האוכלים דגים לסימנא שיפרו וירבו כדגים אין מבשלין אותן בחומץ.

“…there are those who refrain on Rosh Hashanah from cooking sour foods, such as borscht. Therefore, those who eat fish as a sign of fertility should not cook them in vinegar.” – Mishna Berura 583:5 Granted, this passage reflects custom more than law, but for avid herring grazers like myself, it is certainly cause for pause. The broader passage is about the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah, items meant to express our hopes for a sweet, productive, faithful, and righteous new year. Conversely, we are encouraged to abstain from foods associated with negative traits: Sour borscht, walnuts (alphanumerically equivalent to sin), dark grapes (fruit of Adam and Eve’s sin, according to the Zohar,) and items that are generally sour, bitter, and spicy. (Umami emerges unscathed.) Regardless of one’s culinary customs on Rosh Hashanah, the same passage concludes with a note of profound inspiration:

והנה כל אלו הענינים עושין הכל לסימן טוב ולכן פשיטא שיזהר מאד שלא יכעוס בימים האלו מלבד גודל האיסור כדי שיהיה לסימן טוב רק יהיה שמח לבו ובטוח בד' עם התשובה ומעש"ט.

“Behold, all of these culinary customs are upheld in hopes of initiating good signs/blessings. Therefore it is obvious that one must be exceedingly careful to avoid anger during these days, aside from the strong year-round prohibition…rather one should try to be joyous of heart and trusting in Hashem, along with one’s acts of repentance and righteous deeds.” Mishna Berura 583:5 Maintaining equanimity and inner joy can be a daunting task around the holidays. Then again, no one ever said Rosh Hashanah was easy. Thankfully, the Talmud provides additional inspiration to bolster our efforts.

במדה שאדם מודד בה מודדין לו.

“With the measure that one judges another, so is one judged” – Talmud Bavli, Sota 8b. Similarly: כל המעביר על מדותיו מעבירין לו על כל פשעיו Loosely translated: If one is willing to overlook some of the personal offenses caused by others, Hashem responds in kind and overlooks one’s shortcomings. – Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 17a This adage is accompanied by the story of the great Rav Huna, (3rd c. Bavel) leader of the venerable Sura yeshiva, falling gravely ill to the point that burial shrouds were prepared. However, upon his miraculous recovery, Rav Huna proclaims the reason for Hashem’s mercy. “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the heavenly court: Since he does not stand on his rights, you too should not be exacting with him in his judgment.” The divine clemency had nothing to do with borscht and herring. No doubt, Rav Huna was meticulous in his observance of law and custom. However, what ultimately spared his life was that he made allowances for others, and consequently, Hashem intervened to pull Rav Huna back from the grave. One final note about the timing of Rosh Hashanah and its subtle message of forbearance and flexibility. Rosh Hashanah marks the conclusion of the Shiva D’nechemta, the seven weeks of consolation emerging from the Fast of Tisha B’Av. Prominent among the tragedies we mourn on Tisha B’Av is the social breakdown and internecine spats that pushed away our loving God and opened doors for our enemies. Digging deeper into the mire reveals one of the root causes of such strife, a cause highlighted by the ‘Kamtza and bar Kamtza’ saga (Talmud Bavli, Gittin 55-56) as well as by a lament of Rabbi Yochanan: “Jerusalem was only destroyed, because they judged by din Torah (rigorous/strict law)…and did not go beyond the line/letter of the law.” - Talmud Bavli, Bava Mezia 30b Put otherwise, what plagued our people and contributed to our downfall was an unwarranted measure of rigidity and intolerance. It infected judges and courts, and it infected socialite gatherings and parties such as the one where Bar Kamtza pleaded his case in vain. This is the low point from which we gradually ascend through the months of Av and Elul, looking for healing and reconciliation with the Almighty. In pursuit of that reconciliation, we pull out all the stops. One hundred shofar blasts, teshuva, tefillah, and tzedakah, but also apples and honey, pomegranates, leeks, fish (sans brine) whatever it takes!!! And so... The Chofetz Chayim goes beyond the borscht, channeling Talmudic wisdom and the scars of our history to remind us of that which is “pshita” – obvious: If it is divine reconciliation that we seek, let us go the extra mile to reconcile with one another. May we be partners in the creation of a blessed New Year of tolerance, forbearance, and mutual respect. Shanah tova.


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