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Rosh Hashana: How We Do It Here
by Judy Lash Balint
September 12, 2007

Signs of Rosh Hashana in Jerusalem: In the run up to the beginning of this Jewish New Year, piles of branches lay strewn all over the streets of Jerusalem�city workers are zealously pruning trees and bushes in advance of Rosh Hashana when the laws of Shmittah take effect.

Without getting into an arcane description of the Shmittah laws that is way beyond the scope of Jerusalem Diaries, suffice it to say that observance of the Shmittah 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.

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, sewing, pruning, harvesting or fruit picking. In fact, the produce that grows this 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 just had their last cut-back for a year.

Despite the pressure of pre-Rosh Hashanah preparations, a capacity crowd showed up a few days ago to listen to an hour-long presentation in English on the Shmittah laws by the entertaining and erudite Rabbi David Marcus. Sponsored by the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel, the talk expanded on an informative 32-page booklet penned by Rabbi Marcus that outlines how to shop, garden and eat out halachically during the coming Jewish year.

The other unusual feature of this coming Rosh Hashana is the added day tacked on by Shabbat falling right after the 2-day festival. While observant Jews in the Diaspora are accustomed to 3-day yomtovs that occur every once in a while, we Israelis who observe only one day at the beginning and end of most festivals (reason enough to make aliya) find the whole thing a little challenging.

Anyone venturing into the shuk 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 three days when stores are closed.

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 three-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 holyday.

Other secular Israelis, however, are intrigued by the pre-Rosh Hashana traditions, and join 3 a.m. tours of the Selichot 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 all generated by all that coming and going are truly monumental. In the hours leading up to the erev Rosh Hashana 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 included the attack on an Israeli army base that wounded 69 soldiers and Israel's alleged stealth strike into Syrian territory last week.

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 latest escalation.

And just in case we were lacking for entertainment here in the Holy Land, rumors have it that Madonna and an entourage of slightly lesser known performers will be arriving to spend her second Rosh Hashana in Tel Aviv. The tabloids report that the blond Kabbalist wannabe plans to cast her sins into the Mediterranean Sea again this year.

So as we sign off for a few days of introspection and stocktaking, we take this opportunity to wish Jerusalem Diaries readers and their families a year of health, fulfillment and success.

Still looking for that perfect Rosh Hashana gift?

Order Jerusalem Diaries II: What's Really Happening in Israel (Xulon Press) by Judy Lash Balint is now available at your favorite bookstore or from www. and

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