Though Rosh Hashanah literally means "head of the year," the holiday actually takes place on the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which is the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar. This is because Rosh Hashanah, one of four new years in the Jewish year, is considered the new year of people, animals and legal contracts. In the Jewish oral tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the completion of the creation of the world.
Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days, or Yamim Noraim (the "Days of Awe"), and is followed 10 days later by Yom Kippur, the "day of atonement." The Mishnah refers to Rosh Hashanah as the "day of judgment," and it is believed that God opens the Book of Life on this day and begins to decide who shall live and who shall die. The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are viewed as an opportunity for Jews to repent (teshuvah, in Hebrew) and ensure a good fate.
Jews traditionally gather in synagogues on Rosh Hashanah for extended services that follow the liturgy of a special prayerbook, called a mahzor, that is used during the Days of Awe. At specific times throughout the service, a shofar, or ram's horn, is blown. The mitzvah (commandment) to hear the shofar, a literal and spiritual wake-up call, is special to this time of year.
The new year is the only Jewish holiday that is observed for two days by all Jews (other holidays are observed for just one day within the Land of Israel) as it is also the only major holiday that falls on a new moon.
A common greeting on Rosh Hashanah is shana tovah u'metukah, Hebrew for "a good and sweet new year." Many traditional Rosh Hashanah foods -- apples and honey, raisin challah, honey cake and pomegranate -- are eaten, in part, for this reason.
Please join us throughout the Jewish High Holidays, on the HuffPost Religion live-blog, updated daily with spiritual reflections, blogs, photos, videos and verses. Tell us your story.
10/08/2012 4:39 PM EDT
Rejoicing in the Torah in Israel
Jews dance with Torah scrolls during the Simhat Torah celebration in the Mediterranean coastal city of Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, on Oct. 8, 2012. Simhat Torah is a joyous Jewish celebration that marks the end of the annual cycle of the reading of the entire Torah and the beginning of the new cycle. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/GettyImages)
10/08/2012 4:31 PM EDT
Why We Dance in Circles on Simchat Torah
Tzvi Freeman on Chabad.org:
For seven days of Sukkot, Jews walk around in circles, carrying an assortment of green and yellow flora. Then, on Simchat Torah, they dance in circles carrying Hebrew scrolls, working up to a frenzy.
Did I say dance? Well, it’s more like marching, your hands over the next guy’s shoulders, singing and stomping as you march to . . . the same place you started from. Repeat until you plotz.
Are Jews normal?
The short answer: Yes.
No, you don’t see this at your typical social club event. But then, as any anthropologist will tell you, it’s modernity that’s weird, not the other way around. People have been dancing in circles in celebration, in ritual, and just to have fun, in every part of the world ever since there were circles and people. It’s just that it takes Jewish genius to continue doing something so tribal in such an extremely post-tribal world.
Now for my confession: I am one of those weird modern people.
When I was first invited, cajoled and nudniked to join the circular festivities, I was more than hesitant. I attempted to explain that I didn’t see the point of walking in such a way that you don’t get any further than where you started. Needless to say, the argument was ignored, and I was swept into the circle whether I liked it or not.
And I felt stupid. For about the first 40,000 circuits. After that, I forgot about myself and how I felt and what I was doing and why I was doing it and whether I was stupid and that I was there at all. And that’s when the circle became good. Very good.
It was good exactly due to that which I had subliminally feared. Because as I stand here, I am I. In the circle, that I dissolves into we. And in that very act of transcendence, that loss of self, there is unbounded joy.
Read the rest of Tzvi Freeman's column "Why Jews Dance In Circles" on Chabad.org...
10/07/2012 11:46 AM EDT
Inscribing, Signing and Sealing: The Torah of the Present
From Reb Sholom Brodt of Yeshivat Simchat Shlomo, Jerusalem:
The Toldos Yaakov Yosef, a very close disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, brings the following teaching (interwoven with teachings fro Reb Shlomo zt"l and from the Netivot Shalom):
It says in the Talmud that on Rosh Hashanah three books are opened before Him: the book of Tzadikkim, the book of Resha'im and the book of Beinonim (intermediates). Says Reb Yaakov Yosef zy"a, these books are open lefanav -- "in front" of each person, and each person is told to go and sign their name in any one of these books. Anyone who wishes to, can write their name into the book of Tzadikkim -- meaning to say that we are allowed to chose which way are we going to live our lives, and so we write our names into, lets say the book of Tzadikkim.
Now, choosing to write my name into this book is one thing, and this we do on Rosh Hashanah; but now we also need to sign -- and so Hashem has us sign on Yom Kippur. But writing and signing alone are not enough; we need to "seal" ourselves into the book of Tzadikkim. And this is the service of Hoshanah Rabbah.
Writing my name down implies my choice, signing means commitment. Sealing means complete dedication of all my talents and being to fulfill the commitments I have made.
So what are we doing right after Sukkot? We are celebrating Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. We are celebrating our special relationship with Hashem and with His Torah. We take Hashem's gift to us, the Torah, and we dance with it -- all of us together.
Hashem, how could we thank You enough for this precious gift? Hashem, please let me always dance with Your Torah. Hashem, please allow me to always see that every word of Your Torah is a dance of "life"; please Bless me to always remember that my deepest connection to the Torah comes from dancing joyously and lovingly together with every one of my brothers and sisters.
Hashem, please Bless us to live our lives as real Jews, to really be present in the world, in our homes, in our bodies in our souls. Hashem teach me the secret of dancing with the Torah...
10/07/2012 11:40 AM EDT
Create, Bless, Rest: Discovering the Symphony of Life on Shemini Atzeret
Joshua Bell is one of the world's most accomplished violinists. He has played with the world's most renowned orchestras and now is a conductor as well. He performs in the world's finest concert halls and often commands hundreds of dollars per ticket. About five years ago, he participated in an experiment organized by the Washington Post.
On Friday, Jan. 12, at about 8 a.m., the middle of the morning rush hour, Bell was in the entrance of the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station, one of the capital's busiest. He was wearing blue jeans and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. He opened up his violin case, took out his $3.5 million Stradivarius, placed the open case on the ground at his feet. He strategically threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money. He then started playing. The experiment sought to determine if people would stop and notice. Would the beauty of Bell's music transcend the time and space of a busy subway station at rush hour? Over the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Only a handful stopped to listen for any serious length of time, though those who did knew it was something special. Bell took home $32.17, plus another $20 from the one pedestrian who actually did recognize him. In other words, the experiment found that most people did not stop to notice something truly grand.
On Shemini Atzeret (Monday, Oct. 8), Jewish tradition bids us to pause. As long as the fall holiday season has been, let's let it linger a little bit longer, our tradition tells us. Let's not hurry back into the "rush hour" of our daily lives just yet.
The rabbis in the Midrash understood the Torah's word atzeret to convey stopping or delaying. "'I have stopped (atzarti) you, from leaving,' [says God]. [It can be likened to] a king invited his children to a banquet lasting many days. At the banquet's conclusion when it came time for the children to leave he said, 'My children! I beg of you, delay your departure by one more day. It is difficult for me to take leave of you.'"
For me this Midrash suggests that the relative calm and simplicity of Shemini Atzeret is a necessary complement -- perhaps, even, a corrective -- to the solemnity and celebration of the surrounding holidays. Just as great beauty can be found in a subway station, so too God can be found at humble moments as well. On the High Holidays, the synagogue is like a grand concert hall in which the sound of the shofar pierces our hearts. On Sukkot we have the pageantry of the lulav and etrog and the multi-sensory ritual of dwelling in a Sukkah. Shemini Atzeret lacks the grandeur and ritual of the preceding holidays. The message is that God is not to be found only in the peak moments of petition and celebration. These can serve only as catalysts for intimacy with the divine in daily life, not as substitutes for that closeness. Shemini Atzeret reminds me that God seeks my presence as I seek God's and that the opportunity for that encounter exists every day of the year, with or without a shofar, sukkah, or lulav and etrog.
The interpretation of Shemini Atzeret as an expression of God reaching out to us reminds us that just as God reaches out to us, we must reach out to one another. We must notice one another's humanity, experience one another's songs, even in a subway station. The question is: how does one cultivate such sensitivity? Dr. Ron Wolfson of American Jewish University in Los Angeles provides some guidance rooted in Jewish tradition in his book "God's To-Do List: 101 to Be an Angel and Do God's Work on Earth."
Wolfson notes that the Protestant minister Rick Warren has touched many lives in our country with his book "The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?" Warren provides a Christian answer to that question. Ron Wolfson takes the question and offers a Jewish answer: We are on God's earth, he writes, to be God's partner, to do the tasks that God has for us to do. All the things -- big and small -- that God expects us to do will further the work of creation and repair the brokenness in the world. And when we do these "To-Dos," we discover the source of meaning and purpose in our lives.
Wolfson lists the following 10 categories of To-Dos through which we can perform God's work on earth. They are to create, to bless, to rest, to care, to call, to comfort, to repair, to wrestle, to give and to forgive. Wolfson discusses each category and suggests ten ways to fulfill each action. Our cultivation of these To-Dos as part of our daily regimen will enable us to appreciate the symphonies that occur all around us in our daily lives, whether or not we bump into a maestro on the way to work.
On Shemini Atzeret, I believe three of these To-Dos stand out: to create, to bless and to rest.
The act of creation begins with intention -- often expressed in words, creating something, looking at it, judging it, naming it, and -- ultimately -- documenting and remembering it.
On Simchat Torah, when we begin reading the Torah anew, we will read the creation story. The operative verb of Genesis 1 is bara -- God creates. With Wolfson's understanding, just as God creates, so too human beings should create -- that is, work as partners with God to create a better world. When the Ten Commandments describe the Sabbath, the text says sheshet yamim taavod, "six days a week you shall create," and only on the seventh day we shall rest. Creating is a mitzvah insofar as it allows us to apply our spark of divinity toward creating a better world.
Building relationships is not just about calling. It is also an act of creation. When we share Sabbath or festival meals with other individuals or families within our community, we create bonds that last a lifetime. Creating community is one form of creation that is permitted on Shabbat. Shabbat is not meant to be spent in isolation. It is meant for us to be at one with our family, friends and God. We must carve out time for ourselves to hear one another's symphonies and not rush past them like in the D.C. Metro station.
In the Genesis story that we will read on Simchat Torah, God not only creates. God also blesses. God blesses all creatures with fertility. God blesses humanity with fertility and mastery of all living creatures. God blesses the Sabbath. Later in the Bible, God blesses Abraham as he begins his journey God blesses Sarah with a child. God blesses Isaac after his father dies. Just as God is mevarekh (blesses), so too we must be mevarekh. Wolfson suggests many ways in which we can be mevarekh aside from saying God bless you after someone sneezes. There is a tradition of saying 100 blessings a day, thanking God for the many blessings in our lives. We ask God's blessings for the food we eat, for safe journeys and for healing. We can think about how many blessings we say per day. In the process, we can also bless our children, spouse or other loved ones. If we experience great service in a store, business or perhaps even our synagogue, we can make a phone call or write a thank-you note to express our gratitude and extend blessing in the process. And, yes, do take notice of those classical musicians in the street. Blessing others also requires us to think of ourselves as blessings. If we lack this level of self-esteem, it is more difficult for us to bless others.
Finally, I would like to mention rest as a key element of God's To-Do List. In the Creation narrative, Shabbat is understood as to cease or to stop. God stopped creating on the seventh day. Rest is a by-product of stopping the work of creating.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his essay "The Sabbath" (p. 28),
"To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, a day on which we stop worshiping the idols of technical civilization, a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men -- is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for human progress than the Sabbath?"
Again, God's To-Do List is about enhancing the quality of time we spend with other human beings to create a better world and to refresh our world so that it may become even better. We cannot constantly be on the run like those who rushed past Joshua Bell.
To create, to bless and to rest are three of the ways in which we fulfill God's work on earth. This work calls upon us to imitate God in order to bring God's presence into our lives and the lives of others. On Shemini Atzeret, we think about God seeking to linger in our presence because God needs us as much as we need God. We are like a pair of loved ones who seek to be as close to each other now and for as long and as often as is possible. Perhaps it is the image of this intimacy that spurred our tradition to add Yizkor to this holiday. We miss our departed loved ones. We miss the meaningful relationships that they created with us. We miss the times that they blessed us and gave us renewed confidence and hope. We miss the quality time that we spent with them on Shabbat and Festivals and other times when we just enjoyed each other's company. Let us pledge to bring God's To-Do list into our lives and not miss the symphony of life around us every day.
-- Rabbi Edward Bernstein (@RabbiECB)
10/07/2012 11:25 AM EDT
@ yaelrobarts :
"Sukot comes to destabilize...Conviction is surely a great religious value, but certainty is a grave religious danger." http://t.co/ZCw8Ly64
10/07/2012 11:18 AM EDT
10/07/2012 11:14 AM EDT
@ RabbiShaul :
Hoshana Rabba customs: Remove rings from lulav itself, thereby
allowing leaves to spread out.
10/07/2012 11:13 AM EDT
@ RabbiShaul :
Spiritual Significance of Willow-Hitting: Even when we are spread out in exile,
battered at the hands of enemies, our people still endure!
10/07/2012 11:13 AM EDT
Today is Hoshanah Rabba
On Hoshana Rabbah there takes place the final "sealing of judgement" which begins on Rosh Hashanah. At the beginning of the period of judgment - on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - all the world's inhabitants pass in individual review before G-d. During the Festival of Sukkot, the entire world is judged concerning water, fruit, and produce.
The seventh day of the Festival, Hoshana Rabbah, is the day on which this judgment is sealed. Because human life depends on water and all depends upon the final decision, Hoshana Rabbah is invested with a certain similarity to Yom Kippur and is therefore marked by profuse prayer and repentance.
Learn more about Hoshanah Rabba...