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    The other side to Rosh HaShanah

    apple honeyIn olden days education was said to be the 3 Rs – reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. Rosh HaShanah, in contrast, is the 3 Ss – solemn, serious and sacred. The very air of the day is rarefied. It’s obvious it is not a day for frivolity.

    True, it all washes over some of those who come to shule for their annual lip service to Judaism, and all they can find to do is to bother their shule neighbours with the 3 W’s – “When is the service going to finish?”, “What is she wearing that dress for?”, “Why did you buy those shares?”

    Yet there is a legitimate argument for humour on Rosh HaShanah, as any rabbi with as long a career in shule business as mine can attest.

    Take the year when I preached about Jewish demography. The theme was the Torah readings and haftarot of the festival. All focus on children – in particular, our Biblical ancestors’ desperate longing for continuity. I applied the thought to the contemporary Jewish scene. Jews are a vanishing species, I said, and if Judaism is to survive, Jews must have more children – at least four per family.

    After I ended I saw a congregant (call him Sam) stand up and signal to his wife, after which both left the synagogue. Later I asked him, “Sam, what was that all about?” Answer: “I was signalling, ‘You heard what the rabbi said: more children per family. We’ve got work to do!'”

    Or the year when I was Ba’al Shacharit and there was no sign of the chazan. Shacharit took its course and there was still no chazan. I’m no singer and never was. The mere thought that I might have to conduct the rest of the service with the choir!

    I began “Avinu Malkenu, chatanu l’fanecha”. The president came up to me: “What shall we do?” I went on, “Avinu Malkenu, ein lanu melech ella attah!” Said the president, “Can you play for time?” “Avinu Malkenu, aseh immanu l’ma’an sh’mecha!… I’ll pray for time!”

    “If he doesn’t turn up, how will we manage?” asked the president. “Avinu Malkenu, chaddesh alenu shanah tovah! Send me the choirmaster!”

    Between lines of Avinu Malkenu we worked out an ad-hoc program, with the choir doing the main singing parts.

    I began Ein kamocha with trepidation. I never davened with such a shaking heart.

    In the end the chazan came in during the haftarah. He had felt unwell and made a detour to the local hospital. He did daven beautifully but it took me years to get over the shock.

    In my early days I was also the Ba’al T’ki’ah. There is a folk tradition that when the shofar just won’t co-operate one says, Satan m’kat’reg – “The Adversary has got into it!” On one occasion I barely managed with the notes. A voice from the congregation was heard, “Sho far sho good!”

    I can tell you stories about Tashlich as well, but Rosh HaShanah services shouldn’t go on too long and neither should Rosh HaShanah articles. So a final comment. In any shule where I was the rabbi they saved a little money on Rosh HaShanah. For their apple and honey they only had to pay for the honey (in another shule where the rabbi’s name was Honig it was the apple they had to pay for!)… Shanah Tovah!

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