Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Happy Jewish new Year!

Rosh Hashanah, literally "the head of the year," is the Jewish new year and starts (this year) tonight at sunset and ends Friday night at sunset. This holiday begins the ten day span known as the "Days of Atonement" which ends with Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). This is the period where Jews repent for their sins and it is said that on Rosh hashanna God opens the Book of Judgement and on the last night of Yom Kippur God closes it. It is traditional during this time to ask forgiveness for one's sins before God, your fellows and yourself. As such, the Days of Atonement are a time of reflection where we review the year and ask ourselves what we have done that we feel we need to atone for.

Rosh Hashanah specifically celebrates the new year which symbolically represents the biblical creation of the world. As such Rosh Hashanah can be seen as the Earth's birthday. (An interesting note for astrologists: Every 29 years on Rosh Hashanah Hasidic Jews celebrate the Earth's Saturn Return!) The traditional greeting on Rosh Hashanah is "shana tova oomitukah" which means "have a happy and sweet year."

This holiday has many traditions and symbols. As with many Jewish holidays some of these are concerned with eating symbolic foods. Jews eat apples with honey and honey cake to help foster a sweet new year and round challah (egg bread) to celebrate the circle of the seasons. Pomegranates are traditionally eaten to help one have a "fruitful" year (since they have so many seeds) and it is also said that the number of pomegranate seeds equals the number of good deeds (mitzvot) one can do in one's lifetime. One of these mitzvot is also to eat a new fruit on Rosh Hashanah: either a fruit you've never eaten or one you haven't eaten in at least a year. Also, in reflection of the name of the holiday, the heads of animals are traditionally consumed on Rosh Hashanah such as the heads of fish.

Perhaps the most obvious symbol of Rosh Hashanah is that of the "shofar" or ram's horn. Jews blow the shofar at Rosh Hashanah in specific patterns that are laid out in the Old Testament. On Rosh Hashanah the shofar is blown to welcome the new year. The tradition of blowing the shofar may come from the yearly parades caused by the pilgramages of all the Jews from the land of Zion to Jerusalem for the sin sacrifices at the Temple. These parades would be signaled to start with the blow of the shofar from the mountaintops.

Another tradition is a ritual called Taslikh ("to cast off") where you walk to a running river and throw bits of bread or pebbles into the water. The former represents sins which are symbolically "washed away" by the water.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the "High Holidays" by most Jews because they are considered to be the most important holidays to observe. Many Jews who do not normally celebrate the holidays will still come to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah. In fact, this is one of the few Jewish holidays mentioned in the Old Testament and that God commands his people to follow (some of the others are the Sabbath, Passover and Sukkoth). These holidays have of course been modified greatly from the ancient ways laid out in the Old Testament particularly in the fact that prayer and devotion have come to replace animal sacrifice. Rosh Hashanah has a vast liturgy of prayers that have become traditional to recite at this time of year, so much so that the Days of Atonement have their own separate prayer book called a "mahzor."

So have a good and sweet new year. Take this time to look inward and ask forgiveness from yourself for the things you may have done that you feel guilty about and ask forgiveness from friends, family and colleagues you may have slighted. Everyone has bad days, but a sincere apology, even a year later, can lighten the darkness in the world a little. Eat some honey and apples to remind yourself of the sweetness of life and eat a round loaf to remind you of it's never-ending cycles.

Chag Sameach! Happy Holidays!

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