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Heads and Tails

Jews rarely underestimate the significance of food. According to an ancient custom, special prayers are recited over particular delicacies on Rosh Hashana to symbolize our wishes for the new year. Most famous is the reciting over apple dipped in honey of a prayer for a "good and sweet year." An older and (understandably) less widespread custom is the eating of a fish head and reciting "let us be as a head and not as a tail."

The intent of this prayer seems clear: that we should lead, achieve, and choose our own path rather than follow, lag behind or be subject to the whims of others. However, rabbinic tradition does not look equally on all heads and tails. As Rabbi Matyah ben Heresh urges (Avot 4:15), "Be a tail to lions and be not a head to foxes." Context matters. So does the company we keep.

Choosing our company wisely requires effort. It is easier to stick with the familiar and to move with the crowd. And foxes are cunning; some even know how to dress as lions.

May the coming year be one in which we have the wisdom always to know lions from foxes, and when to lead and when to follow.

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