Culture

Written and Sealed (and Stamped) in the Book of Life

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Ranana Dine

Perhaps one of the most stereotypically Jewish things about this holiday period is that we cannot even agree on the proper way to greet each other on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Poskim and halakhic codes from the Magen Avraham to the Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh weigh in on the specifics, including the proper way and time to extend greetings.[1] The oral greetings for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are elaborate and varied, leading many mahzorim to include instructional guides explaining the grammatical changes based on the gender and size of the group addressed. The traditional Ashkenazi greeting for an individual man is le-Shanah Tovah Tikateiv ve-Teihateim – “May your name be written and sealed for a good year.” The phrase goes back to the idea, originating in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b), that only the truly righteous are written immediately in the book of life; thus we pray that our friends and neighbors be seen by God as tzaddikim. As the Koren Sacks Rosh Hashanah Mahzor commentary (written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) explains, “[A]s we judge others, so are we judged.” If we pray for others to be seen as righteous, then maybe we too can be seen in the eyes of God (and others, and perhaps even ourselves), as deserving of a sweet new year.[2] 

Greeting another person on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is powerful not just because it is a greeting, but because it functions also as a short prayer for another that can reverberate back to the self. Indeed, verbal greetings have always had special significance in Judaism. Biblical characters greet each other with kisses and words of peace, and rabbis in the Talmud discuss the best local customs for greetings among friends.[3] Most powerfully, Judaism utilizes rules against greeting to separate normal and happy times from those of tragedy; we do not say hello to one another on Tishah Be-Av and one does not greet the mourner upon entering a Shiva house. That moment of greeting, of saying hello, shalom, is all important, distinguishing between joyful and tragic times and between old friends and strangers.

The significance given to personal greetings speaks to the relational emphasis within modern Jewish philosophy pioneered by thinkers like Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. This thread in modern Jewish ethics focuses on the significance of the relationship of an individual to an other, of an I to a Thou, and how these relationships link back to the divine. For Levinas in particular, the moment of encountering the face of the other, and the moment of greeting, is an opening to all of ethics. In Ethics and Infinity, Levinas explains (in his typically cryptic style) that when encountering the face of another person, in the moment of greeting, “it is necessary to speak of something, of the rain and fine weather, no matter what, but to speak, to respond to him and already to answer for him.”[4] For Levinas, this moment of encounter and answering the face of the other, of words of welcome and apparent small talk, is really anything but small talk. Rather, “the epiphany of the face is ethical,” and in that encounter we are bound by the command not to murder our fellow.[5]

But this year, how many “others” will we be able to greet? Many of us will be davening alone or with just our families. Some of us may attend small outdoor or socially distanced minyanim where no kiddush is served and no schmoozing occurs. Greetings will be yelled through masks from eight feet away. And this is how it should be, this year. 

So this Yamim Noraim we need a new way to greet each other, one that will still be as powerful as our oral greeting tradition but safer than speaking to each other in person. And here is where I want to propose a revival of the Jewish New Year’s greeting card tradition. Now sending physical Rosh Hashanah cards has never totally disappeared – I have a vague memory of learning to fold origami shofars to glue onto cards as a young child at Jewish day school. But particularly among younger engaged Jews, the physical card has been replaced by the Facebook message, the email, and the status update for those who need to send Rosh Hashanah greetings to loved ones far away. And with good reason: communicating over the internet is fast, cheap, and reliable. We usually get our fill of verbal greetings among our friends and family who we celebrate the holidays with.

Yet this year, I argue, sending handwritten cards to loved ones—both those physically near but still impossible to see, and those far away who we cannot travel to visit—will provide a way to wish that all those whom we care about be seen as the tzaddikim they are to us. Looking back at the history of these greeting cards provides some insight into how this tradition might help fill voids we are experiencing in our High Holiday celebrations this year.

Postcards as we know them were invented in 1869 in Austria and spread rapidly from there. These cards quickly became a popular way for Jews to send New Years’ wishes to loved ones, and various printing houses began to specialize in cards with Jewish content. As Jews emigrated en-masse from Europe to America and Palestine, cards became an important way of maintaining contact between the Old and New Worlds. Postcards and letters made material the “traditional oral wishes for God to grant the recipient a good year and continued life,” sentiments that could no longer be expressed in person.[6] They also became an important way for Jews to depict their engagement with contemporary technology and the modern world. Many cards included symbols and images of migration (ships) and communication technology (radios).[7]

The distance experienced by the thousands of Jewish immigrants stimulated growth in the Jewish greeting card industry, a phenomenon noted during the heyday of Rosh Hashanah postcards themselves. The American Hebrew in 1905 wrote that when most Jews lived in small communities in Europe, “It was then both practical and possible to convey all the personal greetings of the festivals, as well as the social news of the home circle, by word of mouth.”[8] By 1905 this was no longer possible; daughters raised grandchildren thousands of miles away from grandmothers, and nephews worked at jobs unimaginable to uncles back in the shtetl. So enters the Rosh Hashanah greeting card. Some cards explicitly dealt with the issue of immigration in their design. For example, a rare postcard from the turn of the century depicts a steamship, moving from right to left, from the Old World to the New. Two eagles, one representing imperial Russia, the other the United States bald eagle, sit on either side: underneath the former is written mi-hoshekh (from darkness), and under the bald eagle is written le-or (to light). (The image of the greeting card at the top of this article has some similar features.) Ellen Smith, in a chapter devoted to studying these cards as a part of Jewish material religion, points out that women were the ones most responsible for sending and receiving Rosh Hashanah cards, making the study of these objects also a chance to gain insight into the female experience of Judaism, materialism, modernity, and immigration at this time.[9]

A fair amount has been written about the history of these cards, and I recommend looking at some of them online (YIVO has a lovely collection here). Perhaps some of the best are the obviously repurposed cards that were made for a Christian or secular market and then “transformed” into Jewish New Year’s cards with the addition of some traditional Hebrew greetings and Yiddish verses. Most of the articles written about the past popularity of Rosh Hashanah cards take a historical interest in the tradition, implicitly assuming that since today we do not live in a time of mass Jewish immigration—and we do live in a time of fast-paced communications technology—these cards are a relic of the past or at least serve a different function today. Technically this is still true. But this year we live in a world where our access to verbal face-to-face communication is severely reduced. Going retro and writing cards and letters could perhaps fill this gap, just like Rosh Hashanah cards once crossed the ocean to give loved ones back in Europe the latest news and sincerely wished New Year’s greetings.

For immigrants, writing letters also created a new mode of ethical communication. Unable to fulfill Levinas’ “face-to-face” opening to ethics, nineteenth century immigrants used letters “as a new basis for reconfiguring and sustaining a relationship that has been rendered vulnerable by separation.”[10] But a letter, even to a neighbor, by its “very nature marks a separation and the need to overcome it,” making letters their own kind of communication, and requiring a new kind of contract within the relationship. Pen-pals agree to respond to one another, to take the time to truly communicate despite physical separation, creating what has been termed a specific “epistolary” or “correspondence” ethics.[11] This Rosh Hashanah, sending a sincere greeting via an old style Rosh Hashanah card, with a thoughtful message and a purposeful design, is one way to overcome the distance created by the pandemic.

Like more than half the world at this point, I celebrated my birthday in the pandemic. Unable to mark the day with friends, I asked the people I know to send me snail mail letters. By a few days after my birthday I had quite a nice pile of letters and cards – and origami cranes, cows, and flowers. One enthusiastic friend sent me five cards; an old friend from summer camp painted me a picture of a parrot with the accompanying text “happy birday.” (For context, until recently I was the proud owner of a very silly “Shabbat Shalom” greeting parrot.) I received sincere letters from new friends and reconnected with old friends who enjoy stationary and a chance to put pen to paper. It was one of the best sets of birthday presents I could have asked for.

The author’s birthday cards

Writing out letters by hand (or, for those with challenging handwriting, even typing them) is a way to communicate that is sincere and thoughtful, a step beyond email greetings or Facebook messages with GIFS of shofars. There is something about the act of writing a physical letter, of taking the time to think of a message specific to the recipient, that lends itself to sincere and heartfelt sentiments. Many people think as they write, coming to new ideas, conclusions, and messages as they go. Even the act of choosing a design, writing out an address, or finding a stamp shows a level of love, care, and attention that an email can never quite equal. Further, cards have traditionally allowed Jews to share good wishes and good news over long distances, to overcome separations from loved ones. Letters were a way to truly greet and wish people well when wishing “le-Shanah Tovah Tikateiv ve-Teihateim” face-to-face was impossible. This year, saying this greeting in person will be challenging for many of us. So why not send a greeting card instead? (And also help out the US Postal Service with increased business.) Cards, with their inherent sincerity, allow us to hope that our most distant friends (and thus ourselves) will be judged as immediately righteous. So, my wish to all is for a sweet and healthy new year, to be inscribed in the book of life, and to have a full mailbox, stuffed with good wishes from all those you love, no matter the distance. 


[1] For more see Macy Nulman, “The Greetings of the Jewish People,” Journal of Jewish Music and Liturgy 21 (1998-1999): 6-19.

[2] The Koren Sacks Rosh Hashanah Mahzor, Commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, 2nd North American Hebrew/English Edition (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd., 2014), 100-101.

[3] See the stories of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 43:27) and David and Nabal (1 Samuel 20:41). For Talmudic discussions see Sukkah 53a and Berakhot 8b.

[4] Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1995), 88.

[5] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 199.

[6] Jeffrey Shandler and Aviva Weintraub, “‘Santa, Shmanta’: Greeting Cards for the December Dilemma,” Material Religion 3, no. 3 (November 2007): 387-388.

[7] For more on this fascinating history see: Shalom Sabar, “Postcards and Greeting Cards,” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Postcards_and_Greeting_Cards (accessed August 24, 2020); Shalom Sabar. “A Survey of the Literature on Jewish Postcards and New Year Cards,” Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Folklore27 (2011): 269-290. (Hebrew); and Ellen Smith “Greetings from Faith: Early-Twentieth-Century American Jewish New Year Postcards” in The Visual Culture of American Religions, eds. David Morgan and Sally Promey (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 229-248.

[8] American Hebrew quoted in Smith, 232.

[9] See Ellen Smith, 243-247.

[10] David A. Gerber, “Epistolary Ethics: Personal Correspondence and the Culture of Emigration in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of American Ethnic History 19, no. 4 (2000): 6.

[11] Ibid.