Judaism For Dummies
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Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish new year — and Yom Kippur (which follows ten days later) are together called the "High Holidays." They are among the most important and holiest days of the Jewish year.

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For over 2,000 years, the High Holidays have been celebrated as a time for judgment, remembrance, and teshuvah ("return" or "repentance"). While every other Jewish holiday commemorates a transition in nature or a historic event, the High Holidays don't — they focus on people and their relationship with God.

What Rosh Hashanah means

While new year's celebrations in most cultures are boisterous events, Rosh Hashanah is a solemn time — solemn, but not sad. In fact, there's great happiness on this day, but this happiness is typically honored in quiet ways because of the focus on judgment. To reflect this solemnity, Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom Ha-Zikaron ("The Day of Remembrance") and Yom Ha-Din ("The Day of Judgment").

Rosh Hashanah is the time to pull out your calendar, review your year, and consider how you might have wronged others or might be falling short of your potential. It's a time to judge yourself and your actions over the preceding year.

The most important aspect of Rosh Hashanah isn't the judgment, though, but the teshuvah, the return, renewal, or repentance that each Jew is called to. This isn't just another "I promise to do better in the future" kind of response. It's a serious stab at beginning the process of forgiveness and of forgiving others. The process continues through Yom Kippur.

Teshuvah: Getting back on track

Perhaps the most important aspect of Rosh Hashanah isn’t the judgment, but the teshuvah — the return, renewal, or repentance that each Jew is called to. This isn’t just another “I promise to do better in the future” kind of response. Instead, teshuvah is a serious stab at beginning the process of forgiveness and of forgiving others. The process continues through Yom Kippur.

Tradition teaches that there are three primary ways to repent: deep prayer, change of conduct, and gifts to charity. However, as Rabbi Soleveitchik, the founder of Modern Orthodox Judaism noted, the main path of repentance is confession — telling the truth, whether to yourself, to God, or to another person. Of course, Judaism has no mechanism for anyone to grant you absolution; sins against another person must be forgiven by that person, and sins against God … well, that’s strictly between you and God.

Ultimately, the goal of teshuvah is to let go of the past — through self-judgment, making amends, and so on — to make room for what is coming in the new year. Rosh Hashanah arrives like a wake-up call just before winter, offering a chance to renew and refresh your intentions, your priorities, and your sense of spiritual connectedness.

The 40-day plan

Judaism recognizes that you can’t be expected to undertake this kind of major life review in just one day, so tradition calls for a 40-day plan. Just as the Jewish day always begins at sundown, the year begins at the waning of summer, when winter is approaching (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least).

The cycle begins in the last month of the year, Elul (which has 29 days), and then ends 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, on Yom Kippur. Tradition says that after Moses smashed the first set of tablets (when he found the Jews dancing around the golden calf idol) he ascended the mountain for the second time on the first of Elul. That meant that he descended with the second tablets (40 days later) on what would become Yom Kippur.

(Those of you who love math may have noticed that this adds up to only 39 days. However, Jews celebrate the day of Rosh Chodesh Elul — the beginning of the month of Elul —one day before the month, making it a total of 40.)

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of several “only’s.” It is the only Jewish holiday that falls on a new moon, that Jews blow the shofar horn more than once (traditionally for a hundred blasts), and that lasts two days in and outside of Israel. Actually, these days, while Conservative and Orthodox synagogues typically celebrate for two days, most Reform Jews only observe Rosh Hashanah for a single day.

The High Holidays are among the most important celebrations of the year, and for many less-observant Jews, this may be the only time they set foot in a synagogue all year. Surprisingly, there’s very little unique ritual involved in either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. The Bible states that you should blow a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah. That doesn’t take very long, so then what? You pray. And, oy, are there a lot of prayers!

The celebration begins with a lighting of candles at sundown (usually at home) and saying two blessings: the yom tov (“holiday”) blessing and the Sheh-heh-khi-yanu blessing (see Appendix B). Then, everyone heads off for the evening service at the synagogue. Remember that many traditional Jews attend services at the synagogue every night (see Chapter 3), and this service is simply an extension of the “regular” service, with additional prayers and readings (which we discuss in a moment).

At the synagogue, the Torah covers, the curtain of the ark, and the reading table (where the Torah will be placed) are often covered with white as a sign of purity, and many Jews also dress in white at services. Although most Jews dress nicely for services year-round, for some this is one of the great social events of the year, and they may dress in their very best for the evening.

Finally, after the evening service (on both nights), it’s customary to eat sweet foods — especially apples dipped in honey — and toast to “a good and sweet year.” Similarly, people eat challah (often with raisins or dipped in honey to make it sweeter) that has been baked in round loaves. (Round foods symbolize the cyclical nature of life.)

Some Jews add foods to their table based on puns. For example, if you invite a single friend to dinner, you might offer dates with the wish, “May you have many good dates this year.” People also eat tsimmis (a sweet casserole that’s often made with carrots, sweet potatoes, and dried fruits such as prunes) or kugel (a sweet noodle pudding that acts best as a dessert; see the kugel recipe later in this chapter if you want to make your own). Just thinking about this stuff makes us hungry.

Jews typically go to Rosh Hashanah services both in the evening and the next day (especially the morning service and the additional Musaf service that follows it). Then they repeat the whole thing for the second day (with a few minor changes in the readings).

Saying 'Happy New Year' to your Jewish friends

There are various ways to wish your Jewish friends a happy new year:
  • Shanah Tovah is Hebrew for "Happy New Year."

  • L'shanah tovah tikateyvu v'tichatemu is a Hebrew blessing meaning "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year."

  • Others just use the Yiddish Gut Yuntoff ("Good Holiday") or Gut Yor! ("A Good Year").

  • It's also traditional to send Shanah Tovah cards to friends and relatives.

Blowing your horn

Nothing says “Wake up!” more than hearing a ram’s horn blown during the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah day. And it’s not just blown once — it’s traditionally blown 100 times in varying ways and times throughout the service. Usually one person is given the honor of blowing the shofar, but sometimes more than one person blows at the same time, or they take turns blowing.

Rafael Ben-Ari / Adobe Stock
The shofar is blown during the Jewish Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as a spiritual wake-up call to the soul.

In ancient days the shofar was blown quite often (to signal a fast or the beginning of a holiday, and so on), but these days the shofar is usually only blown during Elul (once a day), on Rosh Hashanah (a lot), and on Yom Kippur (once, at the end of the holiday). However, to say that it’s just “blown” doesn’t do the act justice. Various ways of blowing on the shofar have specific meanings:

  • Tekiah: One long note like an alarm
  • Shevarim: Three medium blasts
  • Teruah: Eight quick staccato notes followed by one slightly longer blast
Each of these “notes” evokes a different sense of crying: sorrowful moaning, grievous wailing, or sharp sobbing. The sounds resonate not only in sad ways, though; for many Jews, the blasts of the shofar are indescribably beautiful and moving.

During the Musaf service, one person quietly calls out the order of the pattern, which is printed in the makhzor (like, “tekiah, teruah-shevarim, tekiah,” and so on). The last note of the pattern is always a tekiah gedolah, which is a particularly long blow, usually ending with a more forceful blast at the end.

Here are a few things to think about when listening to the shofar:

  • According to the Bible, the sound the ancient Hebrews heard at Mount Sinai was the blast of a shofar.
  • Curiously, the tradition requires Jews to hear the sounds of the shofar, not to blow the horn themselves.
  • Abraham sacrificed a ram after God spared Isaac (see Chapter 11). Tradition holds that God blew one of the ram’s horns at Sinai and will blow the other horn to announce the coming of the messiah. For those who aren’t into the idea of an external, redeeming messiah, the shofar blast is like a taste of what it’s like to be really wide awake and aware in a “messianic consciousness,” a taste of expanded love and compassion which marks the messianic time.
  • Some folks think of the shofar as an alarm, warning people to wake up and turn their lives around. Others see it as piercing the shell that has hardened around their hearts in the previous year.
  • Focus on the sound, remembering that though words and melodies have changed over centuries, the sound of the shofar remains a constant.
Note that traditional congregations don’t blow the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.

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