Who shall live and who shall die: God’s iPhone, Rosh Hashanah 5769


On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

From the cover story by Marty Kaplan

The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer—or piyyut—was the subject of last week’s Torah Slam. Read Danielle Berrin’s report, and watch the video here.

Blind Faith

Jews often live in calendar dialectics. Annually, we oscillate between two Jewish New Years (Tishrei/Nissan) and two “Judgment Days” (Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur). the Dubner Maggid, Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, perhaps the greatest Jewish storyteller of all time, was once asked: Why do we celebrate both Simchat Torah and Shavuot? Why not condense them into one grand holiday?

Characteristically, he responded with a story: A king and queen were childless for many years. Desperate, they visited a sage who conveyed a potent blessing with a cautionary clause. Shortly, the queen would successfully bear a baby girl. No man outside the family, however, must see her until her wedding day, lest she die. And so it was. When the queen gave birth to a baby girl, a secluded island was prepared for the princess. There she was raised in regal style with the finest female educators.

As the princess came of age, the king encountered a serious technical difficulty in marrying off his daughter. Each nobleman in the king’s court was thrilled to accept the princess’s hand in marriage — until it was explained that the first date and the wedding would coincide. On the verge of despair, the king approached the final nobleman, who remarkably assented to marry without as much as a peek.

As the wedding date approached, the nobleman’s repressed bridal fears shook him profoundly. He was for better, but probably for worse, stuck. On the wedding day, the whole world came to dance, except for the anxiety-stricken groom. As he peered underneath the veil, he braced for disaster — but inexplicably the princess was incredibly beautiful. A nagging nervousness persisted: “What’s the catch?” But none was coming. Everyday he unveiled yet another wondrous aspect of her personality. Not only was she stunning, she was also spunky, spirited, charming and deep.

Months later, the nobleman approached his new father-in-law to admit his delight in his new bride and confide his disappointment — that he had essentially missed out on the wedding. The king decided that a new party would be arranged. All the guests would be invited back but this time only one person, the prince himself, would dance to express his absolute delight. And so it was.

Shavuot, the Dubner Maggid explained, marks the Jew’s unshakable commitment to God’s wisdom and His Torah. Not knowing what was in the Torah, at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Jewish nation confidently proclaimed Na’aseh V’nishma (we will perform the mitzvot and then we will understand them). That faith remained blind until the Jew was exposed to the sweetness of the Torah. Simchat Torah celebrates, through dedication to Torah study, the Jew’s joy and ever expanding appreciation for the Torah’s pristine beauty and depth.

Is that not a metaphor for Jewish history? When we had nothing but faith — throughout the numerous darks spots, spanning from Babylonia through Rome to Medieval Europe and 20th century Germany — the Jew always celebrated deep Torah study. It was the study halls of Babylonia, Italy, Germany, Spain, Lithuania and Poland that illuminated our blackest moments. And today — as we begin the “Lexus” period of the 21st century America Jewish community — where are we?

In May 1964, Look magazine ran a cover story on “The Vanishing American Jew,” predicting that by the year 2000, there would be no more Jews left in this country. Since that dire prediction, Look has vanished and we remain 5 million plus. All, however, is not rosy on the American Jewish front. Sub-zero replacement rates, an aging population and a 52 percent intermarriage rate do not bode well for the future of American Jewry.

When historians will wonder what happened to all those American Jews, I believe they will reach the inescapable conclusion that many analysts of the classic 1990 National Jewish Population Survey have already reached: “Jewish day school was … the only schooling that stands against the assimilatory process indicated by intermarriage and its related behaviors” (Elimor & Katz, 1993). In other words, only a consistent commitment to serious Torah will create the joy critical to ensure Jewish survival. Of course these historians will have only been echoing the words of the sweet singer of Israel, King David, who more than 2,500 years ago penned in his Psalms the sentiment: “Had the Torah not been my constant delight, long ago, I would have long since been lost”

Amid the wild craziness and the merriment (and the unfortunate alcohol) that often accompanies Simchat Torah, we may want to reflect upon the secret of our eternity.

After that reflection, I humbly submit, we might just do ourselves and our unborn grandchildren a favor and commit to attend one of the numerous deep (and often entertaining) Torah classes that can be found year-round in our local synagogues or kollels. The Torah is quite a bride — and marriage, after all, is a beautiful thing.

Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.


Right on Time

“I have to wait a month longer this year to eat apples and honey,” complains Jeremy, 16.

“No, the first of Tishrei is always the first of Tishrei,” I say, referring to the date on the Jewish calendar that marks our New Year.

“But it’s not till Oct. 4,” he answers.

Jewish time, to most people, means that Shabbat services and synagogue board meetings begin 15 to 30 minutes late. But true Jewish time means that our days and our holidays adhere to a primarily lunar calendar, corresponding to the waxing, waning and reappearance of the moon as it circles the earth. Jewish time also means that our days begin at sunset and our months begin when the crescent of the new moon is just visible. (It’s no mistake that the Hebrew word for month, chodesh, is related to the Hebrew word for new, chadash.)

And it means that our days don’t correspond — except every 19 years, give a day on either side — to the dates on our secular or Gregorian calendar, based on the earth’s orbit around the sun.

“Wait till 2043,” I say. “Rosh Hashanah will fall on Oct. 5, the latest it’s ever been.”

But the first of Tishrei will always be the first of Tishrei, whether it falls on Sept. 5 or Oct. 5. And around the world, all on the same day, we Jews will be carrying out God’s commandment, expressed in Leviticus 23:24, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.”

Devising this Jewish calendar, and celebrating sacred occasions at their appointed times, as God instructs in Leviticus, entails more than running outside at sunset and staring at the sky looking for the first appearance of stars.

“Which, in Los Angeles, you can’t even see,” my frustrated amateur astronomer husband, Larry, says.

Although that’s exactly what used to happen. In ancient times, when people saw the new moon, they would report their sighting to the Sanhedrin, the high court in Jerusalem. After the Sanhedrin confirmed their testimony, the religious court would declare a new month and alert the Jewish community — initially by lighting fires atop mountaintops and later by dispatching messengers.

But there were some complications. For starters, the mean lunar month is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3 1/2 seconds, making a lunar year 354 days. That’s about 11 days shorter than the solar calendar, which runs 365 1/4 days. And that’s problematic for the pilgrimage festivals — Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot — which are agricultural holidays and thus season-sensitive.

After all, you couldn’t very well celebrate Pesach, known as Chag Ha-Aviv (the Festival of Spring), in October.

“And you couldn’t celebrate Chanukah in August, right before school starts, because we’d get pencils and binders as gifts,” Jeremy notes. “How messed up would that be?”

So the ancient Jews had to intercalate their lunar year to correspond with the solar year.

“Intercalate? Is that even a word?” asks Gabe, 18.

“Ask Hillel the Second,” I answer.

Hillel the Second was a patriarch who, as head of the Sanhedrin, devised a fixed Jewish calendar based on mathematical and astronomical calculations that standardized the length of months to 29 or 30 days. He also cleverly inserted an extra month — seven times every 19 years, in the third, sixth, eighth, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of the cycle — to keep the holidays regulated according to seasons.

Maybe he was heeding the psalmist who said, in 90:12, “Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” Or maybe he forgot his wife’s birthday one too many times.

A more informal form of intercalation probably appeared earlier, scholars surmise. For example, if the road to Jerusalem was too muddy to travel or if there were not enough baby lambs to sacrifice, the ancients waited another lunar cycle to celebrate Pesach. This leap month is Adar II, though technically Adar I is the extra month. And the month of Nisan, which contains the pivotal holiday of Pesach, remains the start of the calendar year.

“What Hillel and the other Jews didn’t do is make sure that all the Jewish holidays fall on the weekdays,” points out Danny, 14, always happy to miss a day of school.

But the ancient Jews did succeed in giving us, with their lunar/solar calendar, a way, despite our living in mostly urban and technological environments, to stay tuned to the natural rhythms of the universe.

And they did succeed in giving us, despite our living in a primarily secular world, a way to stay tuned to the natural rhythms of the Jewish universe, moving us forward through the cycles of the Jewish year, which provide a range of emotional and spiritual experiences while rooting us solidly in our traditions and history.

And so, at sunset on Oct. 3, we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. We celebrate a new moon, a new month and the new year of 5766. And as we reflect on the past year and commit to changes in the coming year, we know, as always, that Rosh Hashanah is right on time.

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino with her husband and has four sons.

For the Kids

Rosh Hashanah is upon us. We will use the shofar to blow us into the new year, we will dip apples in honey for a sweet year and our challah will be round just like the yearly cycle. Our new year will be celebrated this on Sept. 26, the 1st of Tishrei.

Here are some weird customs people perform on Rosh Hashanah that you might not know about:

Eating from the head of a sheep and saying: "May we be at the head and not at the tail."

Not napping on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because if we do that on Rosh Hashanah we may end up "napping" through the year.

Eating a pomegranate. It is said that the pomegranate has 613 seeds — just like the number of mitzvot in the Torah.


Tashlich Time

Another ritual performed during Rosh Hashanah is Tashlich, which is the act of throwing your sins into running water. People use bread crumbs or rocks to symbolize their sins. They go to running water, such as the ocean or a river, because there are fish there. Fish never close their eyes, so they symbolize the ever-watchful eye of God. Cool, huh?

Apples & Almonds

How About This?

Make Rosh Hashanah Cookie Cutters

You will need:

3 1/2 cups flour

2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 cups margarine

1 beaten egg

2 teaspoons almond


1 teaspoon vanilla extract


rolling pin

floured board

cookie cutter(s)

cookie sheet

Combine ingredients. Mix, roll and cut out the dough. Bake until lightly browned at 375 F, about 12 minutes.