While speaking at a church recently, I received an urgent question: “Is it okay for me to wish my Jewish friends ‘A Happy New Year’ on Rosh Hashanah?
“Absolutely,” I said. The questioner then asked what was appropriate to say on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when many Jews do not eat or drink and spend most of the day in synagogue.
I thought for a minute. My answer was a bit disappointing. About the closest we get to a customary greeting in synagogue is “Have an easy fast.”
As I thought more about it, however, I realized we have a few other possibilities:
Rosh Hashanah—The Jewish New Year
Hag Samaech, which means “A Happy Holiday.” This greeting works on most holidays. The word samaech means “happy,” but it has the connotation of a shared communal happiness. A happy holiday is one we share with our friends, family and community.
L’Shanah Tova Tikatevu, which means “May you be inscribed for a good year.” According to Jewish tradition, God has a big book with all of our names in it. It’s called the Book of Life. On Rosh Hashanah we pray God inscribes our names on the good side of the book, giving us a year of joy, health and prosperity.
Gut Yontif, which means “May this be a good holiday.” Gut Yontif is a Yiddish phrase. Yiddish was the language of many Jews who lived in Central and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—think Fiddler on the Roof. Many older Jews will use this greeting throughout the holiday.
Yom Kippur—The Day of Atonement
Tzom Kol, which means “An Easy Fast.” Fasting is not meant to make us suffer. It is meant to cleanse our bodies and spirit and help us focus on the spiritual meaning of the holiday. Thus, wishing someone an easy fast is a way of acknowledging they are fasting while expressing hope that the holiday is meaningful not painful.
Gmar Chatimah Tova, which means “May you be sealed for a good year.” This greeting brings us back to the metaphor of the Book of Life. As we conclude the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and God prepares to close the book with our fates sealed in them, we pray that each of us ends up on the right side of the ledger.
When in doubt on either of these holidays, it is always appropriate to say “Happy New Year.” What better wish can we give to one another than that we enjoy a year of health, happiness and peace.