The Days of Awe
Jewish holidays in general and certainly the High Holidays in particular are products of layers of tradition that span millennia. The High Holiday season begins in some traditional communities with special penitential prayers, selichot services, said the week before Rosh Hashanah either in the evening or before morning services. The daily morning services end with Psalm 27 and the blowing of the shofar. This is the time when the traditional liturgy hearkens us to prepare for Rosh Hashanah - the holiday that begins the season where we are held accountable for our deeds from the past year.
The Torah is at its most cryptic when it comes to Rosh Hashanah. It says, "In the seventh month on the first day of the month you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts." (Leviticus 23:24) Later on, in the Book of Numbers, the holiday is described similarly as a "... day when the horn is sounded.” (Numbers 29:1) The only cues we are given from the Torah are that we are not supposed to engage in work, and that we are to punctuate, or commemorate this day with horn blowing.
The Biblical book of Psalms, traditionally attributed to King David gives us a little more information. In Psalm 81 it is written: "Blow on the new moon a shofar, during the hidden-ness of our day of feasting, for it is a law, a judgment of the God of Jacob ..." This verse which is part of the liturgy in the Rosh Hashanah service and is also the signifying verse by which we sanctify the day for Kiddush is read closely in order to add another layer of meaning to the verses rendered in the Torah. The words "a judgment of the God of Jacob" are interpreted to mean that these are the days that Jacob i.e. the nation of Jacob, is judged.
The Shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah literally heralds the season of judgment that culminates with the fast of Yom Kippur. It is a time where the tradition teaches that the Creator is more accessible, and it is a time of favor and forgiveness, a time of growth and improvement, a time of new beginnings, not only for ourselves, but for family, for friends and community.
Apples and Honey
Toward this end, we eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah to concretize our wish for a good sweet year. It is customary to be inventive with food puns on Rosh Hashanah and customize a blessing that can belong uniquely to the person who expresses it.
When was the World Created?
There is a Talmudic dispute on whether the world was created on the first day of Nissan - the spring month which heralds the liberation of Israel from Egypt, or Rosh Hashanah. Generally, most commentators agree that Rosh Hashanah is considered the day the world was either conceived or created.
It is not only the day when the tradition acknowledges the past creation of the world, but that the tradition sees everyone as being created anew - every year at this time, but real change does not just magically occur. It takes effort and faith from the individual that change is truly possible and we can truly be profoundly transformed. The framework for returning to our ideal selves has been created by our Creator and as we hear the Shofar, we assert the following verse, "... Return us and we will return ..." (Lamentations 5:21)
Download the following documents to enrich your holiday experience:
(The following PDF documents require Adobe Acrobat Reader version 4.0 or higher.)
A collection of hints and reminders for building a welcoming community:
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Tips (PDF file 54Kb)
Two suggestions for using the shofar to improve yourself and help others:
Ways to Use a Shofar (PDF file 85Kb)
Another look at the meaning of the shofar blast.
Sefat Emet and 50 Ways (PDF file 131Kb)
A text study of the story of Sarah following the binding of her son Isaac.
Sarah is the Shofar (PDF file 131Kb)
A resource guide for campuses to integrate tzedek/social justice programming with Rosh Hashanah.
CASE It! Rosh Hashanah (PDF file 91Kb)
A resource guide for campuses to integrate tzedek/social justice programming with the High Holidays.
CASE It! From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur (PDF file 58Kb)
A collection of facts and tips for celebrating Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah Pamphlet (PDF file 763Kb)
Send a Rosh Hashanah eCard.
[Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader version 4.0 or higher.]
Visit MyJewishLearning.com for more about Rosh Hashanah