The Jewish new year began on Sunday evening, and people have been kindly wishing me L’shana tova – which I accept with thanks, because I know it comes with good intentions. This post is by no means intended as criticism of these people, who are clearly using a phrase they’ve picked up along the way as a Jewish new year greeting. You’re doing just fine, it’s just that I’m conscious of the subtle meanings of stuff which you are highly unlikely to be aware of.
Me, I’m happy to wish people Shana tova at this time of year (a phrase which literally means “a good year”) and I might add extra adjectives as is customary – we sometimes say Shana tova u-metuka, which means “a good and sweet year”; my preference is for Shana tova u-mevorechet, which means “a good and blessed year”. These are phrases I am used to – not anything I’ve made up.
But there are other phrases which are traditionally used, starting with L’shana tova, which I’m not comfortable using myself. Why? Because they involve wishing people stuff that I don’t believe in.
That L in the beginning is a Hebrew preposition. Because you don’t phrase things the same way in English, a word-for-word translation of the full phrase would sound like Yoda-speak: to a good year you will be inscribed [and sealed]. A more normal translation would be: may you be inscribed [and sealed] for a good year. (The “may you” bit is implied.)
So what’s this inscribing and sealing all about?
Jewish tradition says that on Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), God determines what sort of year each person will have, whether they’ll live or die, etc – they say God writes this in a book, and that on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) he then seals the book. So people wish one another L’shana tova tikatev* – meaning: may God write you in for a good year; or: L’shana tova tikatev ve-tekhatem*, meaning: may God write you in for a good year and seal it. Which makes perfect sense for those who believe in this stuff, but I don’t. As far as I understand, this is just man-made tradition – I have not seen anything in the Bible to support it. The Bible includes instructions about observing the Feast of Trumpets (which is when New Year is currently celebrated) and about observing the Day of Atonement, a day on which a sacrifice was to be made for all the people and our sins would be covered – the sins of the whole nation. I don’t see anything there about God determining the fate of each individual during that in-between time. Nor do I see provision there for alternative ways of making atonement – again, there are man-made traditions observed today which I see no basis for in what the Bible says.
Me, I’ve already had my sins atoned for, once and for all, through the death of Jesus – the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of not just the Jewish people but all mankind, all who believe in him. And I believe this is why God allowed the Temple to be destroyed – only about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Temple was, for a time, God’s appointed place for sacrifices to be brought – but since he provided the ultimate sacrifice, there was no need for this system any more.
The Jewish authorities at the time did not recognise Jesus as the promised Messiah, therefore they couldn’t understand that this is why the Temple was no longer necessary – they sought to come up with alternative ways for people to receive atonement, ways that seemed good to them but were not ordained by God. Prayer, good deeds, giving to charity – these are all good things but the Bible says all our good deeds are like filthy rags in the eyes of the Almighty. The sacrificial system was, I believe, designed to bring home to us how terrible our sins are in God’s eyes – look at this innocent sheep, watch it butchered in front of you, see it bleeding, take it in as a visual illustration of how seriously God views your sin. Temple worship wasn’t pretty… it wasn’t some nice other-wordly spiritual experience… it was messy. It was bloody. Just like the final sacrifice – Jesus dying a painful and humiliating death in front of everyone, sacrificed publicly just like those animals in the Temple.
I’m told that the Talmud records something about a red thread outside the Temple that used to turn white every year on the Day of Atonement after the sacrifice was made for the people. Apparently it stopped turning white about forty years before the Temple was destroyed. The Temple was destroyed in 70AD. We know what happened around 40 years before that, right?
This is my understanding: atonement for our sins was to be made for us once a year through the sacrifice ordained by God, in the place ordained by him, through the priests appointed by him. (The Bible talks in terms of atonement being made for us – we are passive recipients of grace, we don’t make it happen.) Then, at the time ordained by God (see Daniel 9), he sent the promised Messiah to be the ultimate, once and for all, atoning sacrifice – the Lamb of God, come to die for the sins of the world. Jesus came to usher in the promised New Covenant, the one the prophet Jeremiah spoke about. No longer do we need the annual ritual of sacrificing animals to cover our sins – that’s why God allowed the Temple to be destroyed, that’s why he stopped turning that thread white, and that’s why I don’t need to worry about being inscribed in the book of life – my name is already there, sealed for good.
May you too discover for yourself God’s wonderful grace, available to anyone who believes in Jesus, Yeshua, the promised Messiah, who has the power to inscribe all who believe in the book of life.
* A note about the Hebrew L phrases: the way I wrote them here is the way you would say it if you were speaking to a male; for a female, you need to change “tikatev” to “tikatevi” and “tekhatem” to “tekhatemi”; if speaking to more than one person, change it to “tikatevu” and “tekhatemu”.