Tish Talk” by Rabbi Shalom Rubanowitz
Thoughts from your Rabbi for Your Shabbos Table
Yesterday, a respected Talmid Chacham (Torah Scholar) challenged me with a “ Research Project”. Here is what he asked me:
Where does the greeting, wish, or holiday-period salutation of “Gmar Chatima Tova” (גמר חתימה טובה ) come from?
The popular “blessing” shared between the Jewish faithful in the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is a wish and prayer that the recipient be “signed and sealed” in the book of life for a great and wonderful new year. That’s what it essentially means, or is intended to mean. But an analysis of the actual Hebrew verbiage that makes up this aspirational wish is troubling from a linguistic point of view. Here’s why:
“Gemar” means the end of something the “finale”.
“Chatima” means signature, or “seal” (that’s how ancient documents were signed-by the stamping of a seal).
“Tovah” means “good”.
Given the above, “Gemar Chatima Tova” should be translated as : “Have a great final seal”.
The problem is, when documents or “judgments” are signed, there are no “preliminary signatures”. The document is signed once, and then it’s done!. “Gemar Chatima” implies there is a beginning, middle and end to a seal, and we are wishing you a good “final” signature! Does that make sense?
Even more simply, why couldn’t the wish simply be “Have a Chatima Tovah”-have a great “Seal” (of judgment)! Why the need for the confusing word of “Gemar”?
This question was significant to this respected scholar who tasked me with figuring out the origin of this phrase, because, as he pointed out, it is utilized and has been utilized by so many great scholars, people who were known to parse their words (and blessings) very carefully! Thus, he wanted to check the “source” of this custom, which as he suggested, might in fact be based on well-Intentioned ignorance!
Taking up the challenge (I always believe that even if a custom has dubious sources, if it made its way successfully into Yiddish life, heaven must have approved it regardless), I indeed researched the matter with some level of success, but before I came up with solid research that actually addresses the question (I can share that separately with you if you’d like), an idea came to mind, that would explain the use of the unique verbiage, and also present a powerful message for all of us on this very unique Yom Kippur Eve, in the midst of a never-ending world-wide pandemic.
The idea is simple:
The word “Gemar” made up of the letters גמר also pronounced “Gomar”, which in the language of the Mishna and Talmud, means "learn”. The phrase “Gomar Vsovar” , “גמר וסבר”, is found throughout the Talmud to mean “learned and opined”. In fact, the chief source of Jewish learning, arguably the Talmud, is otherwise known worldwide as “Gemara” , (גמרא)-the book of “the learning”.
Perhaps we can now view the wish of a “Gemar Chatima Tovah” in an entirely new light. What we are sharing with our friends and loved ones, is the wish that all that we learned throughout the last year, all the experiences that taught us about ourselves, each other, about life, all of it should not be lost and forever gone with the passage of time, with a new year and new experiences.
Our past learning should not be for naught. All that we have gained and gone through, all that we were “גמר” should be sealed and seared in our hearts and minds forever. We should not forget or lose and ounce of anything that we worked so hard, or endured so much, willingly or not, to gain. It is one thing to study in college, Yeshiva, to gain life experience, or even unfortunately suffer through some extraordinary challenge, but it is another thing when we can keep the knowledge we gained, when the experiences can remain relevant, when lessons learned last long past the time we first learned them.
So we bless each other that all that we gained shall stay with us in the most enduring and positive of ways, that the “Gemar”, the learning, should not only be sealed within and upon us well, but that it should all ultimately transform us for good, becoming a גמר חתימה טובה!
This was a year of “so many”. So many hardships endured by so many, so many “life lessons” learned in so many unexpected ways. This Pre-Yom Kippur greeting uttered by so many is thus more relevant than ever and I want to be the first to bless each and every one of you with my new version of this Yom Kippur Bracha, that all that you have experienced this last year shall be transformed into lifelong changes that stay with you, but only in the most positive and productive of ways possible, for a year and life where those experiences and attendant lessons are “signed and sealed” within us and on us for GOOD, for HEALTH, for GROWTH and for HAPPINESS.
Parashat “Haazinu”, meaning “listen” is upon us. May we have the ears to listen to each other and our blessings to one another, and may HaShem hear the same, granting us all our every wish for a GEMAR CHATIMA TOVAH!
Shabbat Shalom Umevorach! A beautiful, Healthful and Peaceful Shabbos to All!
Shalom Rubanowitz, at the "Shul on the Beach, Venice, California.
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