Rosh Hashanah, "Head of the Year" or "New Year," is an annual judgment day in the lunar Hebrew calendar. Synagogues the world over will be filled for this first of the two great Days of Awe, the second being Yom Kipur, "Day of Atonement," 10 days later. A solemn call to repentance and renewal draws multitudes to hours of prayer, introspection, Torah study and sermons. The call is like the sharp and penetrating sound of the shofar, the ram's horn, which, both literally and metaphorically, brings us together to strengthen our faith and identity.
The early rabbis designed Days of Awe to remind us that atonement is possible apart from that once offered through burnt offerings and sacrifices in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The rabbis lived after 70 CE, when the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its sanctuary. The ancient priestly rituals were but a distant memory and, in any event, the Jews were no longer a bucolic, unsophisticated folk for whom animal sacrifices would have sufficed as worship. The former farmers were now city dwellers throughout the Roman Empire and beyond to Babylonia and Persia. They had for centuries been exposed to Hellenism: philosophy, literature, politicized government. Scholars had replaced priests as their leaders. Where Leviticus spoke of national atonement through sin offerings by the high priest on Yom Kipur, the rabbis spoke of individual piety: guilt and repentance. Each person is responsible for his or her own atonement, through return, prayer, and good deeds. Historians see these teachings as rabbinic innovations but, at the time, people accepted them as "Oral Torah," revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai along with the Pentateuch, the "Written Torah." (Torah is Hebrew for "teaching," or "revelation." It is sometimes inadequately translated as "law.")
Talmud (the many-volume compendium of rabbinic ideas) lists four separate Rosh Hashanah occasions in the year. Our fall holiday is the first of Tishri and the rabbis called it "New Year for years," for reckoning the seven-year cycles. The others: first of Nisan (spring) - regnal, for dating a king's reign; first of Elul (late summer) - fiscal year for reckoning tithes of cattle; and the fifteenth of Tevet (winter) - New Year of the trees. Hebrew Scriptures refers to the first of Tishri as the Day of the Blowing of the Horn with no reference to Rosh Hashanah or any particular spiritual content. The ancients used horns to announce the new moon, a holiday that opened each month. The horn-blowing for this day must have had special significance.
Shofar-blowing remained a central feature of the holiday. In Talmud we read that the horn must come from a ram and not a cow, the former associated with the binding of Isaac and the latter with the golden calf. The horn may come from a garden-variety billy goat or from exotic beasts with long ribbed horns. The longer the horn the more mellow the tone and the greater the range of notes. From early times, three phrases emerged, combining two or three notes. T'kiah, meaning "toot," is a single long note, beginning and ending with an upward tweak. Sh'varim, meaning "broken," is a series of three short t'kiah toots. T'ru'ah, meaning "trembling," is a string of quick staccato notes ending with an upward tweak. These phrases come together in three patterns, the final one ending with a held-out t'kiah. The congregation rises to hear the blowing. At B'nai Israel in Monroe, several people blow horns at the same time, led by an accomplished young trumpetist, Ben Barenberg. The effect is dramatic and memorable.
The Ten Days of Repentance - Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kipur - begin the year with spiritual account-taking, introspection and repairing bridges between people. A Jew prays for divine forgiveness only for sins against God. Sins against people can be forgiven only by the one who felt the hurt. Repentance is a three- stage process of returning to integrity: 1) Acknowledge the wrongdoing, 2) make amends, 3) avoid repetition. The worship services of these Days of Awe are the longest and most solemn of the entire year. Yom Kipur is a 25-hour fast from food and drink, as if to say that one day a year, prayer and introspection take precedence over all else.
As somber as the season sounds, Jews begin it and end it with festivities. Rosh Hashanah dinner is a family gustatory event. Main courses can be almost anything done grandly. But the meal must include: fine wine, apple slices dipped in honey, round sweetened challah (egg bread), and any fresh fruit or vegetable being tasted for the first time in the season. Eating becomes symbolic: fine wine for fine joy, apples in honey for a sweet year, round challah standing for eternity, new fruit to mark the newness of the season. We repeat, for every act of newness, thanking God for keeping us alive, for sustaining us, and for bringing us through another year.
Rabbi David Kline lives in the Boston area with his wife Barbara. He will be conducting High Holy Day services at Temple Sukkat Shalom.