Rosh Hashanah 5774

The day of the new year.

Wide pspiewak1
Paweł Śpiewak

In the first century of the common era Rabbis wrote in the Mishnah about four beginnings of the year. They talked about the first day of the month of Nisan (the beginning of spring, and the Feast of Passover), the first of Elul (usually in August), when it came to pay tithes for owned animals, the first of Shevat (the beginning of the planting of trees, associated with the holiday Tu Bishvat occurring around February) and the first of Tishri (which falls next Wednesday), which is the day celebrated just as the new year, literally, „the head of the year”.

According to the Torah, the new year falls in the month of Nisan. Rosh Hashanah, which we are celebrating this week, does not have such a strong Biblical explanation. As a matter of fact, the prophet Ezekiel ordered Yom Kippur (falls ten days after the new year) to be called the real beginning of the year. In Psalm 81 it is said that the new moon of the seventh month of the year has a special significance. On the other hand, Ezra, while returning from his exile exactly on the first day of the month of Tishri, gathered people at the Water Gate in Jerusalem to read there the Torah. Something about that day was already worrying from time immemorial.

The day of the new year is not celebrated rollickingly. There are no parties, cotillions, dances. If anything, people eat an apple with honey, adding greetings of a happy and sweet new year. An apple recalls fruit of paradise and honey is a traditional symbol of strength. A circular challah is served as a sign of recurring life cycles. In many countries, there is a pomegranate because of it having many seeds and it is accompanied by a wish: multiply.

The most important fact associated with the New Year is God’s decision about whose names will be inscribed in which book. On that day we connect with God as the Supreme Judge. The names of the righteous will be inscribed in the Book of Life, of the bad in the Book of Death. Ten days still remain, ten terrible days for the true repentance and promises of improvement to alter the decision of the Lord. You should then go to those who you have harmed and in person ask, even thrice, for forgiveness. It is very difficult to confess the sins to the person who has all the right to be angry with us.

Everything begins with the so-called Tashlikh ceremony. Aleksander Gierymski painted it beautifully in „Feast of Trumpets” (trumpets equal Shofar, but about it later). There, Hasidic Jews, stand separately by the Vistula River probably saying Psalm 118: „Oh that my ways may be established too keep Your statutes! Then I shall not be ashamed when I look upon all Your commandments. I shall give thanks to You with uprightness of heart, When I learn Your righteous judgments.I shall keep Your statutes; Do not forsake me utterly!” Tashlikh prayers must be recited over a free-flowing water, into which bread crumbs are thrown as a symbol of throwing out our sins. This action, of course, recalls the sacrifice of a goat. The first of the rabbis who established this holiday in the fifteenth century, mentioned the binding of Isaac. He referred to rabbinic midrash, in which Satan stood in the way of Abraham, turning into a swift river. He would not allow the sacrifice. However, Abraham and Isaac submerged into the water to their necks, praying for divine help.

The sound of shofar exhorts to repentance. Shofar is a horn, which resembles a horn from Mount Sinai. It is like a wake-up call. The order to hear the shofar is one of the most important orders of the day of the feast. This is related to the words of the Book of Leviticus (23:23); „In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall ye have a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation.” (Tishrei is the seventh month of the year). The sound of the ram’s horn reminds also of the sacrifice of Isaac. In the Talmud we read: „Rabbi Abbahu asked ’why do we blow the ram’s horn?’ The Holy One, blessed be He said ’ Blow the ram’s horn in front of me so that I remember for your own good about the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and so that you feel as him bound to me’ ”. We should emphasise that it is not about the melody, music but about the sound, the voice similar to those in a battle or at a funeral. On the occasion of the New Year people send postcards and of course exchange greetings. Most often it is said: a good and sweet year. Hasidim add: may your name be inscribed and sealed for a New Year. And I come with the greetings of a good New Year — Shanah Tovah.

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