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In a few days we will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the New Year of 5769. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, when we sit down to eat the New Year’s meal with our families, we will celebrate the beginning of the year with a number of dishes that symbolize signs for goodness and success. The Hebrew words for a good sign aresiman tov (סִימַן טוֹב ). The initials of these two words (סט) are the final letters of the Hebrew letters that designate the number of the coming year, תשסט .1 Thus, the full acronym for this year is “May this be a year of a good sign” (תְּהֵא שְׁנַת סִימַן טוֹב ).
Most people are familiar with the Hebrew idiom mazal tov, which over the past few decades has found its way into English. Though colloquially this idiom means “congratulations” its literal meaning is “a good effluence.” Both “a good sign” and “a good effluence” are idioms that we say when making a blessing on the new moon each month: “May we and all of the Jewish people have a good sign and a good effluence” (Siman tov umazal tov yehei lanu ulechol yisra’el). What is the difference between the two?
Mazal tov refers to the flow of physical blessing from the Almighty to man, benefiting him (or her) on all three planes of children, life (health), and subsistence.Siman tov refers to a more general and encompassing revelation of Divine blessing. Good signs can be imagined as spheres of change emanating from the Creator that can affect any of an individual’s circumstances albeit in an indirect manner. In the terminology of Chassidut, a siman tov is an expression of God’s encompassing or enfolding light.2
Another way to describe a siman tov is as a segulah, a charm, which refers to an act which triggers an effect without seemingly having any direct connection with that effect. In modern physics, such events are described as “action-at-a-distance.” God describes the Jewish people as His charm amongst all nations. Indeed, Jews are familiar with good signs, knowing full well that there is a clandestine dimension of reality linking various acts of goodness with other events in a way that cannot be explained by the rational mind. For us, a siman tov is an example of personal Divine Providence that governs our every moment.
The sages and the Zohar note many types of events that are a good sign—a siman tov (e.g., if a person sneezes while praying, or cries during the High Holidays). All of these events are good signs when they occur spontaneously. As such a good sign is an expression of what in Chassidut is known as natural consciousness, i.e., the ability of human consciousness to align itself completely with Divine consciousness. When an individual reaches a state of natural consciousness, his Divine service reaches a state of perfection for he is able to perfectly fulfill his God-given role in life.
Rebbe Tzadok of Lublin, a great Chassidic master and disciple of the Izhbitzer Rebbe explains that Mt. Sinai is described by the sages as “the mountain of a good sign” because of its inherent lowliness. The Almighty chose to give the Torah on Mt. Sinai because it is lower than all the mountains, i.e., it radiates a sense of lowliness and humility, rather than the usual sense of grandeur and mystique radiated by other great mountains. Thus, says Rebbe Tzadok, the key to experiencing a good sign is a lowly heart. The modest and unimposing essence of the individual with a humble spirit draws the revelation of Divine Providence.
The full designation of the upcoming year, 769 is equal to the well-known Chassidic idiom “the singular one of the soul” (יְחִידָה שֶבַּנֶפֶש ). This idiom refers to the fifth level of the soul, which lies beyond the grasp of our consciousness. Indeed, mazal tov—”a good effluence,” or even as it is often translated, “good luck”—is spiritually manifest in the fourth level of the soul called the living one (chayah), a level that can be experienced indirectly by our consciousness. But, siman tov—”a good sign”—is spiritually manifest only in this fifth and highest level of the soul—the singular one (yechidah).3 Indeed, the letters of this idiom, “the singular one of the soul” permute to spell the Hebrew words: “There is a riddle [i.e., mystery] in the soul” (יש חידה בנפש ), which therefore is another phrase whose value equals the number of the upcoming year, 769.
Following through with this distinction between mazal tov and siman tov, we learn that the dwelling place of our natural consciousness, which represents the true Jewish nature to equate our consciousness with Divine consciousness, is in the singular aspect of the soul. Mazal tov contributes to the flow of Divine light into our physical needs (children, health, and subsistence), siman tov manifests as actual physical manifestations in our lives. Thus, siman tov—the blessing of this upcoming year of 5769—represents the unique Jewish ability to express the Infinite within the finite and the Divine within the mundane.
We find the most profound example of expressing the Infinite within the finite in atzadik like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who described himself with the words: “I am merely a sign.” The tzadik is the epitome of a good sign, because from him and through him everyone can learn how to imbue the Divine Infinitude within the limits of a physical life.4
Just as at the personal level a siman tov represents the perfection of our natural consciousness and ability to express the Almighty’s will as individuals—a state that we will reach in the time of the Mashiach, so, at the national level, a siman tovrepresents the revelation of the Mashiach himself. The Mashiach is described as the national singular soul of the Jewish people. We find the same relationship expressed in the blessing over the new moon mentioned earlier. The words “May we and all of the Jewish people have a good sign and a good effluence” are recited after: “David the King of Israel is alive and exists”—David being of course the source of the Mashiach’s lineage. In between reciting these two lines we greet one another with a spontaneous Shalom Aleichem (Peace upon you), which expresses the natural love for our fellow Jews that flows out of a state of natural Jewish consciousness.5
The sages tell us that the exile began only when we, the Jewish people, had rejected three things: The rule of Heaven, the rule of the house of David, and the Temple. They also tell us that the exile will not end and that the “good sign [siman tov]” of the ushering in of the messianic era will be seen only after we retract and beseech the Almighty for these same three things. The sages learn this from the verse: “After that, the Children of Israel will return and seek Havayah, their God, and David their king, and they shall fear God and His goodness [the Temple]—in the end of days.” We recite this too during the blessing of the new moon.
Our teacher, the holy Ba’al Shem Tov teaches us that seeking the rule of the house of David is akin to seeking to reveal Divine Providence within every aspect of our lives. In other words, as we have explained, seeking the house of David, i.e., the Mashiach, manifests in our ability to recognize the good signs (siman tov) of Divine revelation in our mundane reality. Seeking the rule of Heaven, the rule of the house of David, and the building of the Temple with a lowly and humble consciousness that recognizes the urgency of the full and complete redemption awakens the good sign, the siman tov, in ourselves, the Jewish people. It aligns our consciousness with that of the Almighty’s giving birth to natural consciousness and natural adherence to the Divine will. And, it allows each of us, in his or her own way, to identify naturally and unhindered with “David the king of Israel, who is alive and exists.”
May the coming year be the year of mazal tov and siman tov to us and to the entire Jewish people, Amen. Let us strengthen our search for the rule of Heaven, for the rule of the house of David, and the Holy Temple until we uncover the true siman tov, the one of whom it can truly be said that “I am merely a sign,” the Mashiach.
With blessings that you may all be signed and sealed for a good and sweet year, both physically and spiritually,
1. The full value of this upcoming year is 5769 (years from creation), but when normally referring to it, it is traditional to denote only 769, whose value is equivalent to the letters תשסט . In part, this is because there are no special letters to designate thousands in Hebrew and therefore it would take many letters to write out 5000. If one wishes to designate the full value of the year in Hebrew letters, one would writeה’תשסט , where the ה with the apostrophe (ה’ ) is interpreted as meaning 5000.
2. אוֹר הַסוֹבֵב כָּל עַלְמִין .
3. Though both these levels of the soul are encompassing powers that enfold the body from above, the fourth level is relatively proximal while the fifth level is distal. In Chassidic terminology they are referred to as מַקִיף הקַרוֹב and מַקִיף הרַחוֹק , respectively.
4. In the Zohar, Rashbi’s book, his disciples interpret the verse: “Three times a year all males shall come to see the face of the Master, Havayah,” in the following manner: “What do the words ‘the Master, Havayah’ refer to? They refer to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.” For Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is an example of the Divine Infinitude expressed within the life of a human being (as experienced by his disciples).
5. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov writes in his Sefer Hamidot that peace is a good sign (siman tov) for children, banim. We may add that the spontaneous love expressed between Jews is a good sign for the birth of the two “children” we are all awaiting, the Mashiach, the son (ben) of Joseph and the Mashiach, the son (ben) of David. Indeed, the union of the two, “Mashiach, the son of Joseph and Mashiach, the son of David” is numerically equal to the value of the blessing “May we and all of the Jewish people have a good sign and a good effluence”:
מָשִׁיחַ בֶּן יוֹסֵף וּמָשִׁיחַ בֶּן דָוִד = סִמַן טוֹב וּמַזַל טוֹב יְהֵא לָנוּ וּלְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל