Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur – A modern Jew’s tale

Rosh HaShanah literally means "head (of) the year" as "Rosh" is the Hebrew word for "head", "ha" is the definite article ("the"), and "Shanah" means year. Thus "Rosh HaShanah" means 'head (of) the year', referring to the modern Jewish day of new year.

Has this always been the case though? When one arrives to Israel, it is never a simple “pop-in, pop-out” visit as this place holds so much significance to us all. This year most of you will not be able to visit due to Covid-19 and its related issues of travel and quarantine. Therefore, I have decided to share some of this with you so that when you come next year, you can understand this all better.

The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah 

literally “day of shouting or blasting”. It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days (also known as “Yamim Nora’im or “Days of Awe”) and is specified in Leviticus 23:23–26:

“The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of Sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the Lord.”

It is no surprise that Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (a cut and cleaned Kosher animal horn), following the prescription of the Bible to “raise a noise”. Many additional traditions have been added over time and today Its rabbinical customs include attending synagogue services and reciting special liturgy about teshuva (atonement), as well as enjoying festive meals. Eating symbolic foods is now a tradition, such as apples dipped in honey, hoping to evoke a sweet new year.

Tishrei month

Rosh Hashanah is celebrated today as a two-day celebration that begins on the first day of Tishrei, which is the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. Few know this but in Jewish culture there are actually 4 New-Years that mark different things on different dates and during our past we probably did not hold this one as highly as we do now.

For instance, Nisan, the Passover month, marks Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the liberation from slavery as well as the beginning of the physical journey back to the promised land and the spiritual journey of Mt. Sinai. In contrast, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the civil year and is the traditional anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman according to the Bible and the inauguration of humanity’s role in God’s world.

It is no surprise that the term “Rosh Hashanah” in its current meaning does not appear in the Torah. The term “Rosh HaShanah”appears once in the Bible (Ezekiel 40:1), where it has a different meaning: either generally the time of the “beginning of the year”, or possibly a reference to Yom Kippur, or even to the month of Nisan:

“In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth of the month, in the fourteenth year after the fall of the city—on that very day the hand of the Lord was on me …”

So… great.
But besides eating apples dipped in honey, what is the meaning of this special day?

The Mishnah, oral discussions of the Biblical text that were put into writing some 1,800 years ago, is part of the Jewish bookcase and may help us figure this out. The Mishnah contains the second known reference to Rosh Hashanah as the “day of judgment”. Whose judgement?

In the Talmud, Additional oral discussions of the Bible that were placed into writing some 1,200 years ago, it states that three books of account are opened on Rosh Hashanah, wherein the fate of the wicked, the righteous, and those of the intermediate class are recorded. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life and they are sealed “to live”. The intermediate class is allowed a respite of ten days, until Yom Kippur, to reflect, repent and become righteous; the wicked are “blotted out of the book of the living forever”.

Blowing of the shofar

See, there is a reason that the best-known ritual of Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the shofar, a musical instrument made from an animal horn. While, as we’ve already learned, the blowing of the shofar is a Biblical statute, it is mostly a symbolic “wake-up call”, stirring Jews to mend their ways and repent. The shofar blasts call out:

“Sleepers, wake up from your slumber! Examine your ways and repent and remember your Creator.”

This, however, is mostly for the intermediate class, as the righteous have already been marked in the book of life and the wicked were blotted out of the book of the living forever. It is for us, regular people (and sinners), that this special time of atonement (10 days) is given. What do we do with it?

Many who do not pray at all during the year will go specially to pray during these times.
Is that enough? Can you beat this on a technicality? Some will even go and perform the sacrificial scapegoat ceremony which unlike its name suggests uses a rooster and not a goat.

In this ceremony a rooster is waved around the sinner and then beheaded. Those who participate in this believe that their sins are absorbed by the poor rooster and they may be cleansed enough so they will no longer be considered “wicked”. The source of this ceremony is old and while it has been altered from its origin, it is still used today. But why? What’s the big deal?


Yom Kippur

also known as the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year in Judaism.Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Jews traditionally observe this holy day with an approximate 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue services and if in Jerusalem, at the Western Wall. It is during these ten days of atonement that a stranger witnesses mass prayers at the Western Wall and starts referring to it as the Wailing Wall.

“The Lord said to Moses, “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the Lord. Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God.”

Day of Atonement

Leviticus 23:26-32 tells us that Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the seventh month and is regarded as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths”. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of that month and Yom Kippur completes the annual period known in Judaism as the High Holy Days (“Yamim Nora’im” or “Days of Awe”) that commences with Rosh Hashanah.

According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, a Jew may try to amend their behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt.
At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that they have been forgiven by God.

However, what most do not realize is that it is considered more important to be forgiven by your fellow human beings. While there is a lot of absurd behavior expressed during these times, I think the most honest one is asking forgiveness for one’s transgressions from your friends and family. It is believed that if you are honest when asking forgiveness and express true remorse, you should be forgiven. In the Jewish tradition, if one asks forgiveness and is not accepted, they may ask up to 3 times. If all attempts are honest and with real remorse and forgiveness is not granted, they are no longer at fault.

What’s going on now?

The times we are living in right now are trying. Many are left unemployed and stress levels are rising. During these trying times we are witnessing a significant rise of civil unrest as well as in domestic violence. This is horrible. Let’s try to learn from this and remember that words expressed can never be taken back. While it is easy to hurt someone else’s feelings, it is difficult to make amends but it starts with saying “I am sorry”.

Have a wonderful New (Jewish) Year and we hope to see you here soon.

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