It’s that time of year again.
Congress closes. Some schools close. Jewish friends and co-workers are being nicer than usual. Then they ask for a few days off, sometimes in the middle of the week. Round challah with raisins show up at the deli. Honey, grape juice, apples and brisket go on sale at major supermarket chains. What is going on?
Don’t panic — it’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown on Wednesday evening, September 28th. While traditionally the holiday is observed for two days, some Reform congregations today only observe one day.
Rosh Hashanah, an ancient holiday described in the Torah (Hebrew Bible), is observed on the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is a commemoration of the Big Bang which fashioned the universe, our planet, and ultimately Adam and Eve. Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of humanity experiencing the world.
While you might think that Jews party like it’s 5772 — yes, that is the year on the Hebrew Calendar — don’t look for all night bashes as you are more likely to find your Jewish friends in synagogue or at their parent’s house. Many Jews, who would otherwise not be caught dead in a synagogue, somehow find their way there on Rosh Hashanah. Jews believe that on that day, God judges the world and decides, “who will live and who will die...” We ask God for forgiveness and pray to be inscribed in the “Book of Life” for a sweet and healthy New Year. And, really, who wants to miss out on that?
Rosh Hashanah inaugurates a time of reflection called the aseret yamei teshuva, ten days of penitence. We believe that while we can find forgiveness for sins committed against the Boss, it is left to to us to seek out and apologize to people we have wronged in the previous year. The aseret yamei teshuva end on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when God’s decree for the coming year is sealed, and the final version of our contract issued.
There are three ways to avoid being left out of that Book of Life even if one has not behaved well: repentance (teshuva), prayer (tefillah), and charity (tzedakah). Consequently, Jews give a lot of charity and spend a lot of time in prayer, or at least in synagogue. We humble ourselves as we start the process of asking forgiveness. Teshuva is a process of getting our community and ourselves back on track, out of bad habits and into living meaningful and righteous lives.
The most famous symbol of the holiday, the Shofar, is sounded in synagogues on Rosh Hashanah, and is critical to our obligations on Rosh Hashanah. It’s not an ancient trumpet for the likes of Wynton Marsalis, rather the Shofar is serious business and fashioned from a ram’s horn. The blasts of the Shofar are likened both to the wordless cries of the humanity speaking to God, and a wake-up call to the soul which transcends rational explanation.
Some of our other cherished customs include: dipping challah and apples into honey and eating honey cake to symbolize our wish for a sweet new year; consuming huge meals with too many courses, calories, and cousins; tossing bread crumbs into living waters during a ceremony called “Tashlich” to symbolically cast away our sins; and renewing synagogue memberships.
All are welcome to attend Rosh Hashanah services, but make sure to call in advance to see if you need a reservation. Owing to popularity and the need to raise revenue, most congregations charge for seats, as Larry David found out in an unforgettable episode of his show. However, there are more and more congregations that offer free and open services to the community. If going to synagogue, the custom is to wear a nice outfit, because we want to make a good first impression for the New Year.
Feel free to greet your Jewish friends and neighbors with “Happy New Year,” or to use the Hebrew expression “Shana Tova,”which is a wish for a “good new year.”
May you blessed with sweet and healthy New Year and Shana Tova!