A Rosh HaShanah prelude

September 16, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple writes about Rosh Hashanah….

Rabbi Raymond Apple


God said to Moses, “Remove your shoes, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:50).

The place where we stand on Rosh HaShanah is also holy ground. We do not have to remove our shoes (though we do on Yom Kippur), but what we have to put aside are the concerns that fill our minds throughout the rest of the year.

These concerns which have no place on Rosh HaShanah are jealousy, rivalry, egotism and selfishness, attitudes which put down other people and leave no room for them, especially if their race, religion, politics and possessions are different from mine.

I had a friend who used to say that in God’s eyes we were all the same because “your grandmother and mine dried their washing under the same sun”.

On holy ground there is tolerance. But somehow there is also intolerance; Professor Alexander Altmann said, “There are both tolerance and intolerance in the Jewish tradition”.

The tolerance is not that of a polytheistic society when one man’s god is as good as another’s. It is the kind of tolerance which is “a radical innovation in the history of religion”, a tolerance which gives everyone a right, a dignity, an identity, all living their lives under the same sun.

The intolerance is of ideas of superiority that say, “I have every right to be myself… but if you want the same right for yourself, I have the right to kill you so that you do not pollute the earth”.

On the holy ground of Rosh HaShanah, the Jew says, “Surely we can smile at each other and enjoy the same sun.”


When God made the world He decided that Man would have the power of speech. The Targum says that He made Man “nefesh m’mal’la”, a speaking being. Human beings can speak, and they do, especially Jews.

Jews maybe speak too much, but Elie Wiesel noted that Jews not only have times when they speak but also their great silences.

One such silence followed the Holocaust. Europe was a place of devastation where words were inadequate and impossible.

Whose words? God’s maybe, for Jews felt disappointed that God apparently had failed to shout and scream at the perpetrators of the horror.

God’s words… and the world’s. A supposed civilisation which had spoken over-confidently about Enlightenment and progress and now had nothing to say.

God’s words, the world’s… the churches, who had preached smooth sermons about love but were unable to protest at hatred.

The Jews, for their part, were stunned and unable to speak. We still are.


The two greetings don’t agree: “Happy New Year!” isn’t the same as “Shanah Tovah!”

Between “happy” and “tovah” (“good”) there’s quite a difference. “Happy” is more momentary and frivolous, “good” is more lasting and ethical.

The adjectives are different, but the noun is identical – “year” and “shanah” both denote a span of time. Samson Raphael Hirsch, however, sees a difference.

“Year” indicates a number of days, weeks and months. Every year has the same length, though there is a minor difference between years if one of them happens to be a leap year.

“Shanah” in Hebrew presumably comes from the root that means to repeat: this year from the mathematical point of view is a repeat of last year and next year will be a repeat of this one.

But Hirsch points out that there is another Hebrew root that means to change, to make a “shinnui”. The art of living is to cope both with sameness and with change.


3-day Jews are not a modern phenomenon.

Philo, the 1st-century Jewish philosopher, saw that in Alexandria many Jews hardly ever entered a synagogue. Some came to services only on Yom Kippur.

In their modern form, 3-day Jews are likely to attend on Rosh HaShanah, Pesach and Yom Kippur, and then of course they are full of complaints that the services did nothing for them.

What they find wrong is probably the length of the services, the unfamiliar Hebrew, the archaic English, the old-fashioned concepts, the operatic cantors, the dreary sermons, and possibly also the uncomfortable seats, the poor acoustics and the other people present.

There are also gripes about how much the synagogue charges and how little interest the management takes in the members and their families. A sorry story all round.

Is there an answer?

In fact there are two – change your shule, or change yourself. If the problem lies with the shule, find an alternative – or create one.

If it is just possible that the problem lies with you yourself, in that you have not devoted any time or effort to personal spiritual lead-up to your synagogue visit, maybe you should take yourself in hand.

Musical or artistic appreciation takes time, patience, perseverance and even expense. Spiritual appreciation is no different.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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