By Kathy Keary
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The Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur, occurs in September each year. We will begin our series on the contemplative ways of Judaism with an exploration of these sacred days.
These days are called the “High Holidays,” or “High Holy Days.” Typically, Jewish holidays commemorate an historic event or a transition in nature; however, Rosh Hashanah and Yon Kippur focus on one’s relationship with God (Falcon, 257).
Rosh Hashanah, a solemn time, is known as the Jewish New Year and is often referred to as Yom Ha-Zikaron (The Day of Remembrance) and Yom-Ha-Din (The Day of Judgement.) A Jewish text, the Talmud, metaphorically describes this time of judgement by saying that on this day, God opens three books. Inscribed in the Book of Death are the names of the totally wicked. Written in the Book of Life are those who are completely righteous. Then there is the book for those who fall in between sometimes being righteous and at other time falling short. Judgement for this final group is saved for Yom Kippur. A positive result is more likely when one engages in acts of charity, heartfelt repentance, and prayer.
Rosh Hashanah is a time for deep self-reflection – a time to review the past year calling to mind one’s transgressions. This is a time to experience the merciful nature of our God, but to do so, one needs to acknowledge their failings and make amends were applicable. Rabbi Ted Falcon advises that this special day “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” (Falcon, 258 – 260).
Judaism understands a review of one’s life is an extensive exercise impossible to complete with sincerity in one day. For this reason, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, called Elul, is dedicated to study and self-examination. Most mornings during Elul, Jews blow a ram’s horn known as a shofar at the synagogue serving as a wake-up call to the soul.
Psalm 27 is read each day during Elul. This passage references an enemy which rabbis generally consider to be the enemy within one’s heart described by Falcon as “the parts of oneself that works from a place of forgetfulness, ignorance, fear, or anger.” The psalm assures that Adonai (God) will be the source of strength in times of such challenge.
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During the month of Elul, a series of prayers called s’lichot is included in the Jewish service which is a cry to God asking for forgiveness. The Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah a s’lichot service is held when tradition says the heavens are especially opened to prayers. It’s not uncommon for a Jewish person to reach out to others at this time to ask for or offer forgiveness seeking reconciliation for the failures of that year (Falcon, 261).
The Rosh Hashanah celebration begins with the lighting of candles and reciting two blessing at sundown typically at home. Then the Jewish people travel to the synagogue for a service. The Torah, the reading table, and the curtain of the ark are covered with white symbolizing purity. Most participants wear white as well and dress in their finest clothes. It’s quite common to eat sweets after the service toasting to a good and sweet year. They typically attend the service both in the evening and the next day. Then they repeat the service for a second day with a few changes to the readings.
The readings focus on three themes:
It’s commonplace for the story of Abraham sending away Hagar and Ishmael to be read on the first morning. On the second morning, the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is read. These stories encourage the listener to ponder the meaning of faith as they begin a new year. The stories highlight Abraham’s commitment placing the lives of both of his children in God’s hands (Falcon, 265).
The shofar is blown one-hundred times during the service. It is viewed as a way to alert people to the need to wake up and turn their lives around. Some see it as penetrating the shell that has hardened their hearts in the prior year (Falcon, 266).
The meaningful theme of reconciliation and renewal is not peculiar to Judaism. This focus is found in many of the faith traditions of the world.
Stay tuned for our next article where we will explore the ten days following Rosh Hashanah and the holiday of Yom Kippur.
Falcon, Ted and Blatner, David. Judaism for Dummies. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc, 2019.
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