October 25, 2003

Rosh Hashanah literally means the "head of the year"

By Abraham Clearfield

The most solemn time in the Jewish calendar is the 10 days of awe, commencing with Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah literally means the “head of the year” and has been taken to be the Jewish New Year.

In Leviticus 23:23, there is no mention of the new year. And the Lord spoke to Moses, urging him to speak unto the children of Israel, saying, “The first day of the seventh month shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with a blast of horns, a holy convocation. The 10th day of that month is the day of atonement (Yom Kippur) (Leviticus 23:27; 16:29-34); there shall be a holy convocation unto you and ye shall afflict your souls to make atonement for you before the Lord your God.” On the day of atonement, in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to pray for forgiveness for mankind’s sins.

This year, Rosh Hashanah fell on Sept. 27, ushering in the year 5764. It is important to note that the Jewish calendar is a lunar one. Observances commence on the evening prior to all holidays.

Later in Hebrew history, the sages attempted to provide historical significance to the religious holidays. At first, the holidays followed the yearly agricultural cycle. In Pagan cultures, these times of planting and harvest were accompanied by orgiastic rites. As decreed in the Bible, these rites were replaced by solemn religious days.

Rosh Hashanah became a rite of purification and introduction. At this time, we turn from our ordinary ways to contemplate the extraordinary and largely unanswerable questions. We measure ourselves against the great moral requirements of our spiritual inheritance and find ourselves wanting. We regret our failures and reaffirm our aspirations for the future. Having examined our lives, we ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. Only our sins against God can be forgiven by the Almighty. For sins we have committed against our fellow humans, we cannot be pardoned until we have righted the wrong.

The services include readings from the Bible. Two of my favorites are Moses’ farewell speech to the Hebrews (Deut 29: 9-14, 30: 11-20). It is to the sentiments addressed therein that I attribute the survival of the Jews to this day. Also Isaiah (58: 1-14), the path of righteousness. The service ends with the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn), sending forth mighty blasts to rouse our spirits for the coming year.

• Parts of this essay were taken from the New Union Prayer Book for the Days of Awe..

• Abraham Clearfield is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bryan and has taught Jewish history courses.

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