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The Run Up to The New Year
by Judy Lash Balint
September 23, 2008

Without getting into an arcane description of the shmittah (sabbatical) laws that would be way beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say that observance of the sabbatical year is confined to Jews living in or visiting Israel, and is one of the very tangible ways that life for Israelis and Diaspora Jews diverges, at least once every seven years. We're just coming to the end of that special year, looking forward to a more normal experience in the twelve months to come.

Every seven years, the Torah tells us, the land must rest and we are prohibited from working the land. That means, according to the rabbinic sages, no plowing, sowing, pruning, harvesting or fruit picking. In fact, the produce from this past Jewish year has the status of kedushah (holiness), and must be handled in a respectful manner. Home gardens too, even including the planter boxes on my balcony, must be allowed to rest, so my geraniums have been meandering for a year.

Anyone venturing into the shuk (market) or even a local supermarket this week could be forgiven for thinking that a famine was imminent. Shoppers laden with huge nylon bags of every kind of produce, fish, meat and bread may be seen staggering under the weight of their purchases, secure in the knowledge that they have sufficient provisions for the two days when stores are closed for the holiday.

Certain foods are traditional to eat on Rosh Hashana, and the markets are full of the most beautiful pomegranates, succulent dates and crisp apples. All the produce is local—pomegranate trees grow everywhere, even in private gardens; dates are from the Jordan Valley and apples from the Golan.

For some, the two-day Jerusalem shutdown of entertainment and shopping is a little much. One of my more secular neighbors informed me she's running off to a hotel in Tel Aviv for the duration. Tel Aviv's beaches are generally packed on every holy day.

Other secular Israelis, however, are intrigued by the pre-Rosh Hashana traditions, and join 3 a.m. tours of the selichot (forgiveness) services at Jerusalem synagogues in the old neighborhoods. It's mostly the Sephardic congregations that host the melodic recitation of penitential prayers in the month before Yom Kippur.

Newspaper polls report that only 47 percent of Israelis plan on attending synagogue services to pray during Rosh Hashana, but hotels all over the country report 95 percent occupancy rates. The traffic jams generated by all that coming and going are truly monumental. In the hours leading up to the erev Rosh Hashana (erev means eve) family dinner, it seems as if the entire country is on the roads. Roads anywhere near shopping centers have been packed for days now, so we should be used to it.

A uniquely Israeli tradition is the "haramat cosit" literally, "lifting of the glass", in honor of the New Year. Government ministries, corporations and municipal offices all host toasts where wine and good cheer flow. The fleet of diplomatic vehicles double-parked outside the official presidential residence yesterday was an indication that President Shimon Peres was hosting the diplomatic corps for the traditional New Year bash.

No doubt, the foreign emissaries were discussing the tensions of the day, which include the new political reality in the post-Olmert era.

But for the long-suffering residents of Sderot and the communities of the western Negev, the days leading up to Rosh Hashana just bring more of the same—an unceasing barrage of Kassam attacks and a devastating sense of helplessness as politicians debate how to react to the ongoing tension.

So as we prepare to sign off for a few days of introspection and stocktaking, we take this opportunity to wish Jewish readers and their families a year of health, fulfillment and success—oh yes, and peace and quiet.

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