Rosh Hashanah Guide for the Perplexed, 2013
by Yoram Ettinger
1. The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah – “the beginning of the year”) is compatible with the agricultural calendar. It commences with the planting of seeds and the first rain, which highlights the centrality of the soil in human life. The Hebrew word for soil is Adamah (××“×ž×”), which starts with the first Hebrew letter, ×, encompassing the Hebrew words for human being (××“×) and blood – lifeline (×“×). Rosh Hashanah is the only Jewish holiday that is celebrated – for two days in Israel and elsewhere – on the first day of the month.
2. The term Rosh Hashanah was conceived by Jewish sages, during the Second Temple, referring to the Biblical “Day of blowing the Shofar (horn)” and “the Day of commemorating the blowing of the Shofar” (Leviticus 23:23-25, Numbers 29:1-6). Commemoration and historical memory are prerequisites for national cohesion, survival, an enhanced future, and the avoidance of critical errors. The blowing of the Shofar symbolizes faith in God, the annual judgment day, soul-searching, and the constant drive – not only Jewish, but universal – to improve human conduct.
3. Rosh Hashanah and the Shofar (the ritual ram’s horn) symbolize and commemorate:
*Reaffirmation of faith in God as the Supreme King and Judge;
*That the first human being, Adam, was created on Rosh Hashanah, the sixth day of Creation, the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei;
*The opening of Noah’s Ark following the flood;
*The almost-sacrifice of Isaac (thou shall not sacrifice human beings!) and the Covenant of the Jewish People with God;
*The three Jewish Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), and the Prophet Samuel (the latter inspired Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense”), were conceived/born during the month of Tishrei, which is called “The Month of the Strong Ones; ”
*The release of Joseph from an Egyptian jail;
*Mt. Sinai, the Ten Commandments and the Torah;
*The commitment to liberty. The blowing of the Shofar introduced the Jubilee Year, “Yovel” (×™×•×‘×œ) in Hebrew, which is a synonym for Shofar. The blowing of the Shofar represents deliverance from spiritual and physical slavery and inspired the anti-slavery Abolitionist movement in the USA;
*The reconstruction of the Second Temple and the destruction of both Temples;
*The ingathering (Aliya) of Jews to the Jewish Homeland, the Land of Israel;
*The cycle of nature – seed planting season and the equality of day and night;
*Optimism in the face of daily adversity – genuine repentance and rectifying behavior warrants forgiveness;
*The fallibility of all human beings, starting with Adam and including the most pious, even Moses;
*Humility as an effective means to minimize wrong-doing;
*The “Ten Days of Awe” (repentance), which are initiated on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur.
4. Rosh Hashanah – unlike all other Jewish holidays – is a universal holiday. It is a hopeful holiday that encourages stock-taking and renewal.
“Rosh” (×¨××©) translates from Hebrew as “beginning,” “first,” “head,” and “chief.” The Hebrew letters of Rosh constitute the root of the Hebrew word for Genesis, “Bereshit” (×‘×¨××©×™×ª), which is the first word in the Bible. Just like the Creation, so should the New Year and our own actions, be a thoughtful, long-term – not a hasty – process.
Rosh Hashanah is celebrated at the beginning of the Jewish month of Tishrei, which means beginning/Genesis in ancient Acadian. The Hebrew spelling of Tishrei (×ª×©×¨×™) is included in the spelling of Genesis (×‘×¨××©×™×ª). Rosh Hashanah is referred to as “Ha’rat Olam” (the pregnancy of the world), and its prayers highlight motherhood, optimism, and the pregnancies of Sarah, Rachel,and Hanna, who gave birth to Isaac, Joseph, Benjamin, and Samuel respectively.
Sarah, ×©×¨×” , and Hanna, ×—× ×” , (the root of the Hebrew words Pardon, Amnesty and Merciful – ×—× ×™× ×”), were two of the seven Jewish Prophetesses, along with Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Abigail, and Esther. Hanna’s prayer (which facilitated her pregnancy) has become a role-model for God-heeded prayers.
Noah – who led the rebirth of humanity/world – also features in Rosh Hashanah prayers.
5. The three pillars of Rosh Hashanah are Repentance (returning to good deeds – ×ª×©×•×‘×”- in Hebrew), Prayer,and Charity(doing justice – ×¦×“×§×” – in Hebrew).
6. The Hebrew word for atonement/repentance is Te’shuvah (×ª×©×•×‘×”), which also means”return” to core morality and values and to the Land of Israel. On Rosh Hashanah, one is expected to plan a “spiritual/behavioral budget” for the entire year.
The three Hebrew words, Teshuvah (Repentance/Atonement, ×ª×©×•×‘×”), Shivah (Spiritual and Physical Return, ×©×™×‘×”), and Shabbat(Creation completed on ×©×‘×ª) emerge from the same Hebrew root. They constitute a triangular foundation, whose strength depends upon the depth of education and commemoration. According to King Solomon, “The triangular cord cannot be broken.”
7. The Shofar (ritual ram’s horn) is blown on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call, a break away from the professional, social, and politically mundane, in order to recommit oneself to basic values and repairing one’s priorities.
Shofar (×©×•×¤×¨) is a derivative of the Hebrew word for enhancement/improvement (×©×¤×•×¨). Blowing the Shofar symbolizes a new beginning. The new beginning of the Jewish people – at Mount Sinai – was accompanied by the sound of the Shofar.
8. The Shofar should be humble (bent and not decorated), natural and unassuming, just like Mt. Sinai (which is not the highest mountain in Sinai) and humility, which is the foundation of a positive character, in general, and leadership, in particular.
9. The Shofar is the epitome of peace-through-strength. It is made from the horn of a ram, which is a peaceful animal equipped with strong horns to fend off predators. The numerical value of the Hebrew word, “ram” (××™×œ), is 41, equal to the value of a “mother” (××), who strongly protects her children.
10. While the blowing of the Shofar is a major virtue, listening to the Shofar is at least as important a virtue. The Hebrew root of “listening,” ×”××–× ×”, is Ozen, ear (××•×–×Ÿ), which contains the balancing mechanism in our body (××–×•×Ÿ). Ozen is also the root for “Scale” (×ž××–× ×™×™×) and “Balance,” which is the zodiac sign of the month of Tishrei. Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (when people balance their good deeds vs. bad deeds) are observed during the month of Tishrei.
11. The three ways of blowing the Shofar express our inner constant values (Te’kiyah), the tenacious human marathon through success and failure (She’va’rim), and the determined pursuit of faith-driven long-term vision (Troo’ah).
12. The three series of blowing the Shofar represent the faith of mankind in God(Malkhooyot), the centrality of history/memory/roots, God’s Covenant with the Jewish People (Zichronot), and repentance/enhancement (Shofarot).
13. The three different soundings of the Shofar represent the three Patriarchs (Abraham – tenacity, fighting capabilities and mercy; Isaac – benevolence; Jacob – truth), the three parts of the Bible, and the three types of human beings (pious, evil, and mediocre) – all of whom are worthy of renewal.
14. Rosh Hashanah services include 101 soundings of the Shofar. It is the numerical value of the Hebrew spelling of Michael, the Guardian Angel, which was one of the names of Moses.
15. The pomegranate – one of the seven species that bless the Land of Israel – is featured during Rosh Hashanah:
“May you be credited with as many rewards as the seeds of the pomegranate.” The pomegranate ripens in time for Rosh Hashanah and contains – genetically – 613 seeds, which is the number of Jewish statutes/laws.
The pomegranate was employed as an ornament of the Holy Arc, the holy Menorah (candelabrum), the coat of the High Priest and the Torah Scrolls. The first two letters of the Hebrew word for pomegranate (×¨×ž×•×Ÿ), Rimon – which is known for its crown – mean sublime (Ram, ×¨×ž).
The pomegranate (skin and seeds) is a very healthy fruit: high in iron, anti-oxidants, anti-cancer, it decreases blood pressure and enhances the quality of blood and the cardiac and digestion systems. Rimon is a Hebrew metaphor for a wise person: “wholesome like a pomegranate.”
16. Honey is included in Rosh Hashanah meals in order to sweeten the coming year. The bee is the only insect that produces essential food. It is a community-oriented, constructive, and a diligent creature. The Hebrew spelling of bee (×“×‘×•×¨×”) is identical to “the word of God” (×“×‘×•×¨-×”’), and Deborah (who was one of the seven Jewish prophetesses).
17. Shofar Blowing Commemoration Day (Leviticus 23) is one of the names of Rosh Hashanah. One can avoid – rather than repeat – past mistakes by learning from history. The more one remembers, the deeper are the roots and the greater is one’s capability to withstand storms of pressure and temptation. The more stable/calculated/moral the beginning of the year (Rosh Hashanah), the more constructive will be the rest of the year.
May the New Year (5774 in the Jewish calendar) be top heavy with truth, realism, tenacity, and memory – but low on misrepresentation, wishful thinking, vacillation, and forgetfulness.