Over the next few weeks, our Jewish friends and neighbors will be marking some of the most important days on their calendar. These holidays have deep, complicated Biblical roots — and help us understand our common heritage.
On Saturday 30 September Jews throughout the world welcome in the year 5777. Rosh Hashanah, Hebrew for “the head/beginning of the year,” issues in the “Days of Awe,” the “High Holidays.”
In Exodus 12, God gives Moses the instructions for observing the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In verse 2, God commands Moses, “This month is to be the first of all others for you, the first month of your year….” Yet we know that Passover takes place on the full moon of the month of Nisan, which is in the spring. However, in Leviticus 23 we note that there is an unnamed “great day of rest (shabatōn)” which takes place on the first day of the seventh month, which is Tishri. This day is sacred and is characterized by remembrance (zikrōn), a blast (trû ’ah) — presumably of the shofar — and a sacred assembly (miqrā’ qodeš).
In contemporary Judaism all of these are connected with Rosh Hashanah.
More significantly, Leviticus prescribes a further holiday. “The tenth day of the seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement (yôm hakkippurîm).” Clearly the unnamed holiday in Leviticus 23:24, ten days before the Day of the Atonement, is the Rosh Hashanah celebrated by Jews today. In the post exilic (586 BC) book of the prophet Ezekiel, the prophet speaks of “…the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month” (Ezekiel 40:1), which most scholars hold to be month of Tishri (September-October).
According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah is calculated from the creation of the world. On this day, tradition has it that all creation passes by God who determines its fate for the coming year. It is the day when God reasserts his sovereignty over the world. As with Christians and Muslims, the day starts not at midnight, but sunset. For Jews, it is a day of celebrating with special foods — with an emphasis on sweets.
It is also a day of prayer and visiting the synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah one of the most important ceremonies — as one would expect from Leviticus 23:24 — is the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn. It is sounded on the two mornings of Rosh Hashanah (unless one is the Sabbath, as it is this year). The shofar is blown 30 times after the readings from the Bible during the morning worship service. It may be blown up to 70 more times during the day. There are three different “notes” to the shofar each with its own significance. The blast of the shofar is reminiscent of the coronation of the king and is also connected with Abraham’s sacrifice on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22).
This helps lead up to the next big holiday after Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur. The days between these two are the most sacred for Jews around the world. Rosh Hashanah, as is to be expected, is a joyful celebration — while, as we shall see next week, Yom Kippur is a solemn day of fast and penance. While it is perfectly good to wish Jewish friends, neighbors and colleagues Hashanah tova, “Good/Happy New Year,” it is not appropriate to wish them a happy Yom Kippur.