Beginning Sunday evening and extending through the next 10 days, Jewish people worldwide will observe Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement.
In Hebrew, we call the first holy day Rosh Hashanah and the second Yom Kippur. Both days have separate traditions and rituals, yet they are tied together in this 10-day period we call the Days of Awe. We use this term because underlying the 10 days, which include the prohibition against work or any other activity besides attending communal prayer services, is the idea that God judges us. The unity of the 10 days requires Jewish people to engage in intense introspection and to weigh carefully our deeds over the past year to determine to whom we must apologize for transgressions. The 10 days of repentance demands we request forgiveness from our fellow human beings, as well as for the transgressions we have committed against God.
The hope is that by the end of this period we will emerge spiritually renewed and ready for the year ahead.
What is the Scriptural basis in the Hebrew Bible for Rosh Hashanah? In Leviticus 23: 23-25, the Torah describes Rosh Hashanah as commemorating the first day of the seventh month, which is called Tishrei, as the day to observe a complete rest and to sound the ram's horn, which is called the Shofar.
The passage goes on to prohibit any form of work and require a fire offering to the Eternal One.
In biblical days, there was a temple in Jerusalem where people could offer sacrifices to God and receive expiation from transgressions. But after the Romans destroyed the temple, the rabbis determined that in order for Judaism to survive, our prayers would suffice as a medium for the average worshipper to obtain forgiveness from God. From that point on, the rabbis of the Talmudic period set in place the traditions of these days beginning with the welcoming of the New Year and concluding with the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, when we stand before God and ask forgiveness.
On Rosh Hashanah we still practice the ritual of blowing the ram's horn, which can be made from the horn of a ram, antelope, gazelle, goat or Rocky Mountain goat. These animals are considered kosher because they have split hooves and chew their cud. Once the cartilage is removed and with adjustments to the mouthpiece, the horn can be ready to sound. It is not too much different from playing a brass instrument. The horn was used for many purposes in biblical times, including announcing religious occasions, a call to war and convening the tribes of Israel.
Now, when we sound the Shofar on Rosh Hoshanah, we remind ourselves to think seriously about making amends to those we may have offended and reflecting on how we can find the best in ourselves by facing what is not always a perfect record of behavior.
Many more traditions are part of these 10 days of repentance. Families have all kinds of celebrations and special holiday foods to help bring these days into a larger cultural family context. Relatives gather to celebrate. There is a blending of the theological nature of the days of awe as well as the communal and familial components, which is why these holy days are so important.
If you have Jewish friends, say "Happy New Year" or "Shana Tova." On behalf of the Jewish community, I wish for everyone that the Jewish New Year 5773 will bring peace and harmony to this world.