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Rosh Hashanah – of Fish Heads and Frankl

September 6, 2010 – 6:45 pm2 Comments

By David Werdiger

Many of the rituals and activities around Rosh Hashanah are brimming with symbolism. From the round challot symbolizing completeness, to the special foods eaten such as honey cake and apple dipped in honey for a sweet year, and Tashlich, where we walk to the beach and symbolically throw our sins to the sea.

Our table on the first night is always adorned with a big fish head, which stares out at me a little disturbingly. It is a custom among many to eat from the head of a fish, and to accompany this with the prayer “may we be a head and not a tail”. While a more contemporary, Yiddish-inspired version of this adage might be that we be “a mentch rather than a shvantz”, perhaps there is a little more to this metaphor, and a closer connection to the Holiday itself.

Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first and second days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, and is the start of the Jewish year as counted since the creation of the world. However, the correct translation of the term is “head of the year”, rather than “start”. This anthropomorphic naming teaches us that just like the head/mind of a person sets their direction, so our thoughts and actions on Rosh Hashanah are a model for how our year will proceed. Unlike the celebrations widely associated with the secular New Year, the Jewish equivalent has a far more solemn and reflective mood.

We can take this further still. Chassidic sources espouse the principle of “mo’ach shalit al halev” – that “the brain should rule the heart” – as a fundamental code to live by. This bears a striking resemblance to Steven Covey’s first habit (the first of the 7 Habits of Highly Successful People) – “Be Proactive”, or “take responsibility”. Covey breaks down the word “responsibility” as the “ability to respond”, and explains this as the unique capacity of humans to intercept our instinctive reaction to stimulus and choose to respond in a different way. The great psychiatrist Viktor Frankl drew on a similar technique as a way of (emotionally) surviving the Holocaust, drawing on his inner spiritual strength despite being confronted with atrocities on a daily basis.

Covey? Fish Heads? Frankl? Rosh Hashanah? These themes all converge to the message of personal growth and leadership. Change cannot easily be noticed through frequent observation. But the turn of a new year is an appropriate juncture to reflect back on our achievements over the last twelve months, and to use Rosh Hashanah as a launching pad for a new phase of our own growth. The rituals and symbols are there to inspire us to look within and just as the world is spiritually renewed each year, we renew ourselves for the next stage of our life journey forward.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good and healthy New Year!

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  • ariel says:

    Beware, as they say in Yiddish when referring to communal organisations and parliaments:
    “If the head of the fish stinks, the whole fish stinks!”

  • Sam says:

    I’m glad you mentioned Viktor Frankl in association with the beginning of the High Holydays. A profound and courageous man in every respect. He preserved many of his psychiatric notes while interned in a concentration camp where he came to the conclusion that those fellow inmates who believed that they had a particular reason to live for, (a meaning to their existence, such as to see a wife or child again), had a much higher probability of surviving the camp. He also calculated that about 1 jewish person in 29 that went into a concentration camp survived until liberation. He went on to use quite a lot of what he observed there as a basis for his practise of psychotherapy after the war.
    Children and grandchildren of holocaust survivors thus should feel special, if only because of the 1 in 29.

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