Sir James Frazer, one of the founding fathers of modern anthropology, scrutinised the practice of sympathetic magic in his monumental work, The Golden Bough. His book documented in detail how primitive peoples believed that by performing symbolic acts, they could somehow influence events to obtain the outcome depicted by the symbolism.
Here, for instance, is an example of a ritual to improve hunting: "The Indians of British Columbia live largely upon fish. If the fish do not come in due season, a Nootka wizard will make an image of a swimming fish and put it into the water. This ceremony [is] accompanied by a prayer to the fish to come."
It is easy us to sneer at this from the lofty heights of 21st-century science. But one of the universally observed Jewish New Year customs is the eating of an apple dipped in honey. Ask anyone why they do it and they will tell you that it is "for a sweet New Year". Here we are, modern Jews in 2008, apparently mired in the backwardness depicted in The Golden Bough. Does Judaism also advocate sympathetic magic? Will this help us to fulfil our pledge to God to serve as a "light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42: 6)?
Bnai Yisaschar, a Chasidic commentary on the Jewish calendar, offers a profound explanation of this practice which helps it and us to keep pace with the most adventurous vanguard of modernity. Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the universe, the product of ten divine utterances (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:1). "And God said" is a recurrent motif that punctuates the simple grandeur of the opening chapter of Genesis.
Yet, in the definitive opening verse of Genesis, this refrain is lacking. Chapter 1, verse 1 simply states, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Why, right at the start, is God silent?
We are now at the heart of the matter. Bnai Yisaschar defines language as an encumbered form of communication, like a product with packaging. By putting an idea into words, we translate it before transmission. The listener or reader receives the words, then decodes them to access the idea they contain.
Wordless communication is unburdened, and highly effective, to this day. We navigate our computer desktops by clicking on icons. We say it with flowers. A picture is worth a thousand words.
At the very start of creation, there was no language because God had not yet called it into being. But this was not bad management on His part. It meant that the stuff of the universe was called into being without being filtered by a messy linguistic medium, and that the divine impulse to give life and love was stamped directly on to the fabric of creation.
This intense, intimate contact between God and His cosmos was never to be repeated. It was creation in its most powerful and pristine form, the clearest revelation of divine power and the most intimate interaction between God and His creatures.
On Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary and renewal of creation, a trace of that immaculate clarity is granted to us again. God invites us to revive that wordless bond by communicating with Him in a way that transcends speech.
Now we can understand the wisdom of the talmudic sage Abaye when he said (Keritot 6a) that one should eat an apple dipped in honey on the first night of Rosh Hashanah.
This simple gesture, the sweetness of an apple redoubled by the sweetness of honey, is not sympathetic magic or superstition, but a prayer to God that He grant us a sweet New Year. Perhaps it is the most effective prayer of all, a shattering entreaty without the usual linguistic insulation, in consonance with the mute majesty of Rosh Hashanah and God's inexpressible love for His world.
David Lister is rabbi of Edgware United Synagogue.