The festival of Rosh HaShanah, literally the ‘Head of the Year,’ marks the start of the Hebrew calendar year. This year it falls on 16th September, and commences the year 5773. It is the first celebration of the Fall Festival cycle that we refer to as the High Holidays, which includes Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The fall holiday cycle ends with the final festival of Sukkot. The Bible refers to the holiday as Yom Ha-Zikkaron (the Day of Remembrance) or Yom Teruah (the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar). The holiday is instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25. “Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts.”
Rosh HaShanah is the beginning of the Ten Days of Awe, Yamim Noraim, that culminates with the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These High Holy Days, as they also are called, are preceded by a time of preparation—the month of Elul and the first ten days of Tishrei. We use these forty days to ready ourselves to stand before God on Yom Kippur when the “gates of the year” are finally closed. Rosh HaShanah is considered the Day of Judgment, when we stand in God’s Presence. The final sealing of the judgment rendered on Rosh HaShanah occurs on Yom Kippur after the ten day period of awe. It is said that we live from one Rosh HaShanah to the next as God decrees another year of life for each person. In these days we make a critical review our lives during the past year, then purpose to repent of our sins, reconcile broken relationships and make a renewed effort to walk in God’s ways in the coming year.
A SWEET NEW YEAR
At the close of services on Erev Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of our new year, to usher in a sweet and delectable judgment, many people have the custom to serve sweetened foods. We dip bread in honey (instead of the usual practice of sprinkling salt on it) at this time of year for the same reason. In addition to dipping an apple in honey, we eat round challah bread to symbolize the circle of the life and the cycle of a new year. The challah is also in the shape of a crown because we refer to God as royalty several times throughout the holidays. And, we exchange the traditional greeting with one another, “L‘Shanah Tova!”—Hebrew meaning “To a good year!”
THE VOICE OF THE SHOFAR
The shofar is the central symbol of the Days of Awe. It is customary that the shofar is blown at the end of both morning and evening services, although not on Shabbat. The sounding of the shofar is a biblical ritual recorded in the Scripture for Rosh HaShanah, which also is called Yom HaTeruah – the Day of the Shofar or Trumpet Blast. Three sounds are made with the shofar, tekiah, teruah and shevarim. Tekiah is the long unbroken blast, meant to awaken our souls as it announces that the King is approaching and we need to get ready to stand in His Royal Presence. The nine plaintive staccato notes of teruah and the three slightly longer staccato notes of shevarim are like wordless cries that express all we cannot find words for from the deepest recesses of our hearts to the heart of God. The last shofar call at the close of the service is tekiah g’dolah, a loud, unbroken blast that is extended as long as the one blowing has breath. It is a triumphant note of hope in the God of our Salvation, Who is our help in times of trouble. The call of the shofar thus reminds us of our Creator’s call on our lives—the call to live a life of ‘holiness’ or lives ‘set-apart’ to serve Him, filled with His Presence and love. The psalmist declares the motivation of the heart as we turn and seek His face: Hear, O LORD, when I cry with my voice, and be gracious to me and answer me. When You did say, "Seek My face," my heart said to You, "Your face, O LORD, I shall seek" (Psa 27:7-8).
At the close of our services for Rosh Hashanah comes the Tashlich ceremony. It is a beloved traditional practice in most communities where we turn our pockets inside out, jettisoning some lint, or we use a few bread crumbs for the occasion. We cast these crumbs that symbolically represent our sins, upon a body of flowing water, and watch as it carries them away out of our sight. In this symbolic ritual, which dates back to antiquity, we remember how God looks upon our sin once confessed and repented of—we are washed clean and sin is carried away to the sea, never to be remembered by Him.