A HISTORY OF CELEBRATIONS
by Rabbi Melissa Stollman, Congregation Kol Tikvah
This year, at sundown on Sunday, October 2nd, marks the beginning of the first Jewish High Holy Day, Rosh Hashanah. Jews around the world mark the day by entering a synagogue to hear the shofar blast, as in the days of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem during biblical times. However, during ancient times this holy day did not mark the Jewish New Year, or literally “Head of the Year”, as it fell on the first day of the seventh month. Later this day became the beginning of the calendar year in Jewish tradition.
Jews around the world make it a priority to observe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Worship services, grandiose in style, include a special musical motif, and the ritual of blowing of the shofar, or ram’s horn. The mitzvah, or commandment by God, is to hear the shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah. The shofar symbolizes the ram used during the sacrifice of Isaac listed in the Book of Genesis, and is said to be curved or bent to demonstrate Jews’ humility before God.
In addition to being known as Yom Teruah, The Day of the Blasts, Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment, when all people appear before God. Many congregations during this time change their Torah scroll covers to white, and their clergy wear white robes. This comes from Isaiah 1:18: “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn white as snow.” Rosh Hashanah marks the first day of the 10 Days of Repentance culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These holy days, and the intermittent ten days known as the “Days of Awe”, are the opportunity for Jews to apologize to one another for their misgivings, to forgive others for hurting them intentionally or unintentionally, and to ask forgiveness from God. While Jews can ask forgiveness at any time, this is the time to focus on this task in order to be inscribed for the coming year in the Book of Life. Jews reflect behavior from the past year, and this reflection focuses involves teshuvah, known as repentance, but literally means to return. However, repentance is not enough, one must seek reconciliation with those whom have been wronged during the past year. It is mitzvah, or good deed/commandment, to forgive those who have wronged us, and those who have asked for our forgiveness.
For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before God. (Lev 16:30)
The complicated rituals and sacrifices led by the high priest, which took place on Yom Kippur in ancient times, have changed since the Temple’s destruction in Jerusalem. Now atonement is a more personal act of emotional purification through fasting, removing from our lives the wrongdoings we have made. The Torah commands Jews to practice self-denial on this day. The fast begins at sundown on the evening of, or Erev, Yom Kippur with the kindling of the Yom Kippur lights. While fasting, Jews focus their thoughts on the day and remove other distractions.
Yom Kippur is often seen as a somber day, but forgiving others and asking others to be forgiven is an important process. The day is long and tiring, but as the “Gates of Repentance” close at sunset Jews around the world celebrate this important moment with a Havdalah ritual to separate this holy and sacred time from one’s regular everyday life. The fast is broken with the final sounding of the shofar, and a joyous meal commences.
As Jews around the world approach the High Holy Days this year I want to wish you all a Shanah Tovah, a happy new year, and a G’mar Chatimah Tovah, may you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for good.