A Rosh Hashanah Guide for the Perplexed
Here are some facts about Rosh Hashanah:
1. The conventional meaning of the two Hebrew words Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is the beginning (Rosh in Hebrew) of the year (Shanah in Hebrew). The evening of September 29, 2019, will launch the 5,780th Jewish New Year.
2. An innovative meaning of the two Hebrew words, Rosh Hashanah, is provided by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the iconic Talmud scholar, who highlights another meaning of the Hebrew word Rosh: head. Rabbi Steinsaltz compares the calendar year to a human body, featuring the head/brain (the epicenter of the thought process), the heart (the intersection of blood supply), and the liver (the crux of the digestion process). Thus, the head/brain (Rosh Hashanah) contemplates the vision, strategy, tactics, and norms/values of the coming year. The other parts of the body (the rest of the year) facilitate the implementation of the plan. Proper coordination between the head/brain (מח in Hebrew), heart (לב) and liver (כבד) produces the acronym מלכ — the Hebrew word for royal/king, suggesting that one is in-charge and secure.
3. The root of the Hebrew word, Shanah (year), is both “repeat” and “change,” which underlines the purpose of Rosh Hashanah’s prayers and soul-searching: repeat the practice while learning from experience, in order to enhance one’s behavior.
4. The Hebrew letters of Rosh (ראש) constitute the root of the Hebrew word for Genesis, pronounced “Be’re’sheet” (בראשית), which is the first/lead word in the Bible (Book of Genesis). Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei, which means beginning/Genesis in ancient Akkadian. The Hebrew letters of Tishrei (תשרי) are also included in the spelling of Genesis (בראשית). The Hebrew spelling of Genesis (בראשית) consists of the first two letters in the Hebrew alphabet (אב), the middle letter (י), and the last three letters (רשת) — representing the complete/whole undertaking of the Creation.
5. Rosh (ראש) is the Hebrew acronym of “the will of our Heavenly Father” (רצון אבינו שבשמים).
6. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the sixth day of Creation, when the first human-being (Adam) was created, highlighting the centrality of the soil — a metaphor for humility — in human life. Thus, the Hebrew word for a human-being is Adam (אדמ), which is the root of the Hebrew word for “soil” (אדמה), while the Hebrew letter ה is an abbreviation of God, the Creator.
7. The Hebrew word Adam (אדמ) contains the Hebrew word for blood (דמ), the liquid of life, and is the acronym of Biblical Abraham (אברהם), David (דוד), and Moses (משה) — the three role models of humility.
8. Rosh Hashanah is only one of four Jewish new years:
- The anniversary of the Creation (Rosh Hashanah), the beginning of the Jewish civil calendar and the seasons, the setting of the Sabbatical (seventh) and Jubilee (50th) years, and the time for calculating the annual tithe (10 percent) on vegetable and grains.
- The first day of the month of Nissan initiates the three Jewish pilgrimages/festivals (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) and the measuring of the reign of ancient kings.
- The first day of the month of Elul initiated the preparations for Rosh Hashanah and the New Year for animal tithes in ancient Israel.
- The 15th day of the month of Shvat is the new year of trees (Arbor Day), which represent humility, tenacity, and growth.
9. Rosh Hashanah is announced and celebrated — in a humble and determined manner — by the blowing of the shofar (the ritual ram’s horn), which also announces the (50th) year of the Jubilee. The Hebrew word for Jubilee is Yovel, a synonym for shofar. The Jubilee inspired the US Founding Fathers’ concept of liberty as documented on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof.” It also inspired the US anti-slavery, abolitionist movement.
10. The Hebrew spelling of shofar, שופר, is a derivative of the verb שפר, which means to enhance — an unending, uphill effort (sometimes, against all odds) for improvement.
11. The shofar is the epitome of peace-through-strength. It is made from the horn of a ram — a peaceful animal equipped with strong horns to fend off predators. The numerical value of the Hebrew word for “ram,” איל, is 41 (א-1, 10-י , ל-30), which is equal to the value of “mother” (אם, א-1, ם-40), who strongly shields her children. Rosh Hashanah prayers highlight optimism of motherhood demonstrated by the Biblical Sarah, Rachel, and Chana, who gave birth to Isaac, Joseph, Benjamin, and Samuel.
12. The blowing of the shofar (100 blows during Rosh Hashanah services):
- Commemorates the creation of Adam, the first human-being; the almost-sacrifice of Isaac, which was avoided by God’s angel and a ram; the receipt of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai; the tumbling of the walls of Jericho upon entering the Land of Israel; and Judge Gideon’s war against the Midianites;
- Highlights the month of Tishrei — “the month of the Strong Ones” (Kings A, 8:2) — when Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Samuel were born;
- Reaffirms faith in God as the Creator (ancient kings were anointed to the sound of the shofar) — an ancient expression of “In God we trust”;
- Alerts humanity to significant developments (e.g., deliverance and attacks);
- Constitutes a moral wake up-call, individually and collectively, initiating the Ten Days of Repentance, and soul-searching which conclude on Yom Kippur; and
- Highlights the ingathering (aliyah) of Jews to the Land of Israel, emphasizing optimism in the face of adversity.
Wishing you a year top heavy with health, modesty, challenge, and reward.
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A US-Israel Initiative.