The earliest instance of a written "shana tova" greeting is a 14th century letter written by the Ashkenazi rabbi known as the Maharil (Jacob ben Moses Moelin). This letter affirms the existence of the custom in German Jewish communities at that time. In the 18th century, the custom began spreading beyond the German-speaking realm to other large concentrations of Jews in Eastern Europe, especially Poland. By the end of the century, cards sent in the time leading up to Rosh HaShana began to take on distinct characteristics, such as special writing paper, and the custom continued to spread throughout the Ashkenazi world during the 19th century.
Around the time that the postal service emerged, in the 1880s, Jewish entrepreneurs were beginning to print commercial greeting cards for the new year. By this time new year greetings constituted the main body of postcards sent by Jews, and this would remain so for some 100 years.
During the years between the end of the 19th century and the end of WWI (1898-1918), a time known as the Golden Age of Postcards, the vast majority of the mail sent by Jews in Europe and America consisted of new year cards.
The cards played an important role in fundraising for community purposes. This custom originated in traditional institutions such as the early settlement in the Palestine. Calendars, too, were printed for fundraising purposes as the new year approached. Secular nationalist organizations such as the Jewish National Fund, Keren Hayesod and the Joint Distribution Committee followed suit.
New year cards from the renewed settlement and the years after the establishment of the state also feature central Zionist values, such as agricultural labor, a return to biblical paradigms, the local landscape, cultural and economic undertakings, milestones in reclaiming the land and founding of state institutions, the immigration struggle, the Haganah ("The Defense"), settlement movement, and so forth.
The image of the Jewish soldier as a symbol of national renewal was especially evident in the cards. There are cards featuring Jewish soldiers in European armies during the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War, Jewish soldiers who played important roles in the struggle in Palestine, members of the Jewish Brigades in the First and Second World Wars, and more.
When the IDF was established, during the War of Independence, the figure of the Israeli soldier became the central feature of that generation's Israeli new year cards, especially between the Six-day War and the Yom Kippur War. Soldiers on parade, soldiers against the background of a unified Jerusalem, soldiers moving into the old city, soldiers marching, paratroopers beside the Western Wall, male and female soldiers against a local landscape, air force displays, tanks and even a scene depicting the breaching of the Old City, all adorn the cards of the period.
To the contemporary observer, these greeting cards recall a time of ideological unity and naïve and uninhibited national pride. The young country was establishing itself, growing stronger, and demonstrating pride in its accomplishments. At the same time, those were humbler, simpler times in terms of materials conveniences. The vast majority of Israelis did not have telephones in their homes, and the mail was the standard means of communicating. Even short geographic distances, for example from Hadera to Netanya or Haifa to Nahariya, were perceived as large enough to warrant and even impel communication via mail. As Rosh Hashanah approached, the volume of mail would peak, with enormous quantities of cards added to the regular letters. Postmen carried enormous leather bags bulging with envelopes and decorative postcards.
With the advent of mass communications, beginning with the telephone in the 1970s, the new year card began to decline in popularity both in the Jewish world and in Israel. Today, in the age of cellular telephones, email and social networks, new year cards have almost entirely disappeared. However, there has been a recent revival of the custom out of nostalgia for a time when greetings were more personal and intimate.
The National Library, in its capacity as curator of our national memory, collects varied ephemera that attest to Israeli culture and depict life in the State of Israel and the land of Israel in generations prior to the establishment of the state. Among others, the Library holds a large collection of new year greeting cards and postcards. These cards give us a fascinating and sometimes surprising glimpse into vignettes of Israeli life that often seem distant though they took place right here, not that long ago – a window on our common Israeli memory.