Why the Gmar gatima tova is a blessing that we can use for the festival of Hannuka.
‘Gmar hatima tova’ is a greeting associated with the High Holy Days. After being inscribed in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashana, we wish each other a gmar hatima tova – may you be completely sealed for the best. Traditionally this blessing is offered from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur. The blessing may also be offered until the final day of Succot, Hoshana Raba, when there is one last opportunity to add a note to the Book of Life and be sealed for the best in the coming year.
The ever-optimistic hassidic tradition recognized one further opportunity: One of the early hassidic masters, Rabbi Aharon of Zhitomir (d. 1816), wrote that Hoshana Raba continues until Hanukka. Strange as it may sound, there is justification for offering the “gmar hatima tova” wish right through Hanukka.
Speaking at a gathering to commemorate the anniversary of his father-in-law’s death on Hanukka 1951, Rabbi Ya’acov Friedman (1878-1957) cited this hassidic tradition.
Friedman – often known by the title of his work Oholei Ya’acov – was a scion of the regal Ruzhin dynasty and served as leader of the Husiatyn Hassidim in Tel Aviv during the formative years of the State of Israel. He was born in Bohush, Romania, married in Husiatyn, Galicia, and with the outbreak of the Great War, he fled with his family to Vienna, Austria.
In Vienna, Rabbi Ya’acov was active in Zionist circles. In 1937, together with his father-in-law – the incumbent leader of the Husiatyn Hassidim – and the rest of the family, he moved to Mandatory Palestine. The family settled in the first Jewish city, Tel Aviv. To avoid the humidity and heat, the family would move to Jerusalem for the summer months, but the center of the Husiatyn Hassidim was established in Tel Aviv. To this day, the building on Bialik Street remains standing as the bastion of the Husiatyn legacy there.
Rabbi Ya’acov’s father-in-law and predecessor, Rabbi Yisrael of Husiatyn (1858-1949), was a respected leader, known for his quiet, sincere and noble manner. Contemporaries would later recall the figure of Rabbi Yisrael on his daily walks through the streets of Tel Aviv. Prior to his death, he was asked for his opinion on the fledgling State of Israel. “It is at’halta degeula, the beginning of the redemption,” he responded without hesitation.
At the gathering in his father-in-law’s memory, Rabbi Ya’acov commented: “Today we need a gmar hatima tova in two senses of the blessing. First, in the classic hassidic sense: Even though we have reached Hanukka, it is not too late to be sealed for good life this year.
“Second, on the national level: We have already merited ‘the beginning of the redemption.’ The establishment of the State of Israel reflects a physical redemption for our people. The ultimate goal, alas, remains: A physical redemption accompanied by spiritual salvation. For this, too, we wish gmar hatima tova – may what was begun be completed for the best.”
Rabbi Ya’acov continued that this blessing was eminently appropriate for the festival of Hanukka: In hassidic tradition, the light of the Hanukka candles reflects the light of ultimate good that is reserved for the End of Days.
We could add a further dimension to the festival’s connection with the beginning of the redemption as reflected by the establishment of the state: Since 1949, the State of Israel’s official emblem has been the seven-branched menorah.
So for Hanukka, we offer the blessing of gmar hatima tova: May we be sealed for a rain-filled good year, and may what was started with the establishment of a national homeland be completed for the best.