Rosh Hashanah 5777: L’shanah Tovah, Regardless of Your Grammar

Do you know where your blogger is? Back after a bit, wishing you a happy Rosh Hashanah, and here to enable you to keep on saying what you say to your friends on the holiday!

Let me explain.

The Forward has an article from 2011 that appears to be making the rounds again. It discusses a traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting and its abbreviated use. The short greeting many use is, “l’shanah tovah“–for a good year. The traditional greeting, in full, is l’shanah tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu–“may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” (The article leaves off that last bit, v’teichateimu–“may you be sealed.”) In the absence of the full greeting, the argument goes, we should simply be saying “shanah tovah“: a good year, sort of in a vocative sense.

Inscribed and sealed in what? The book of life. This is, of course, closely tied to the theme of judgment at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: that the ten-day period is the point at which the fate of each person is settled for the coming year. Don’t take my word for it–read the U’n’tanah Tokef prayer (technically a piyyut–a liturgical poem) recited during the holidays:

b’Rosh Hashanah y’kateivun, uv’Yom Tzom Kippur yeichateimun–“on Rosh Hashanah they are written, and on the fast of Yom Kippur they are sealed”

That’s followed by a series of fates for individuals: “how many will pass away and how many will be born, who will die and who will live, who will die at the right time and who untimely, who by flood and who by fire,” etc.

Compared to this grave image, the article in the Forward is…nit-picky. You see, the article is a deep dive into whether…wait for it…the preposition should be there in the abbreviated greeting of “l’shanah tovah.” Grammatically, it shouldn’t be there; it should be “shanah tovah,” because the object of the preposition is missing.

Now, nit-picking is kind of my thing. If there were “Certified Grammar Nerd” credentials, I would have one. (When a Latin professor calls you a grammar geek, you’ve rounded the bend.) And as an abbreviated greeting, I don’t have a problem with “l’shanah tovah,” because: 1) more than half the people who say it don’t know the full context of what they’re saying and don’t really know Hebrew anyway, so why make a big deal out of this, and 2) independently, I think the preposition is completely fine.

As an illustration, try this: “l’chaim!” Those complaining that “l’shanah tovah” is wrong should also reject “l’chaim.” I bet they don’t. (In fact, here is the author of the Forward article, this time addressing l’chaim.)

And how do most American Jews use l’shanah tovah? As it happens, most of us probably don’t really, when pressed, think that the poetic image of U’netanah Tokef is really real. They usually mean it as a greeting–akin to a Hebrew “happy new year.” And in Humanistic Judaism, that’s really what we mean: you won’t find U’netanah Tokef as part of the liturgy because…we’re Humanists. We don’t think that happens, and so we don’t say it.

So I can always say that I’m extending you my hope that you have a good year. Hebrew? Drum roll, please…ani m’kavat l’shanah tovah bishvilekh (for feminine-identified speaker and recipient) / ani m’kaveh l’shanah tovah bishvilkha (for masculine-identified speaker and recipient): “I hope for a good year for you/on your behalf.” You can abbreviate that to…l’shanah tovah. Ta da! And plenty of Hebrew out there has individuals hoping for (l) something: healing, a doctor, or even:

Ha-tikvah sh’not alpayim/li’hyot am chofshi: A two-thousand-year hope, to be a free people.

That’d be the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah.

(The Rosh Hashanah greeting article in the Forward happens to not really be about the grammatical propriety of our greetings–it’s really more about the low level of Hebrew knowledge among American Jews generally. And on that issue, I’m torn: I don’t think it’s really possible to teach the language in most contexts in a way that will build competence or really stick, and I don’t think Jewish identity is necessarily inexorably tied to Hebrew. But…it’s really, really helpful for all that. And as the second Forward article notes, a similar abbreviation process is how we got l’chaim–it initially was taken from a context in which those hearing the blessing over wine wished for life for the the person reciting the blessing. See what I did there?)

And, of course, all of this discussion kind of ignores a crucial thing: “wrong” or “right” in grammar is always a moving target, and “correct” colloquial use doesn’t overlap with formally correct use in literary contexts.

So…l’shanah tovah to you–“here’s to a good year!” You are now grammar approved.