Although I grew up in a strongly identified Reform Jewish household, there were many things that I did not know until I was an adult. Perhaps that is because in Judaism, there is more to learn than is possible in one lifetime!
I was often very confused by the myriad of blessings that people wished one another during the holidays. I was afraid I might wish them the wrong thing; who knew what might happen as a result? I’ve prepared the following guide to help you navigate your way through this season. It’s based on A Guide to Greetings by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, in Rosh Hashanah Readings: Inspiration Information Contemplation by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006, Woodstock, Vermont). I hope it’s helpful! L’shanah Tova u’metukah tikateivu!
During the month of Elul, the traditional greetings are Shanah tovah (“A good year”); or Leshanah tova tikatevu (“May you be inscribed for a good year [in the Book of Life]); or “Leshanah tovah umetukah tikatevu (“May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year”); or—less common—Ketivah tovah (“A good inscription [in the Book of Life]”).
The appropriate response: Gam Lecha (feminine, Gam lakh)—“The same to you.”
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, some people add to the above: Leshanah tovah tikatevu vetechatemu (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good life”). Others use these greetings only through the first night of Rosh Hashanah; after that, it would be indelicate to suggest that a person is not already inscribed in the Book of Life, for on Rosh Hashanah all the righteous are so inscribed—only those whose records are closely balanced between good and bad have their fate postponed until Yom Kippur.
On Yom Kippur itself it is common to wish others, Tzom Kal, which means “an easy fast.” On Yom Kippur (and until Hoshanah Rabbah) the greeting is Gmar Chatimah Tovah (“A good final sealing [to you]!”) or Gmar Tov (“a good seal”) or Hatimah tovah (“A sealing for good!”)