Wednesday, March 22nd | 29 Adar 5783

September 14, 2020 5:25 am

Rosh Hashanah 2020 — A Guide for the Perplexed

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avatar by Yoram Ettinger


Jewish pilgrims pray at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, in the city of Uman, Ukraine, Sept. 20, 2017. Photo: Reuters /  Valentyn Ogirenko.

The evening of September 18, 2020 will begin the 5781st Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah). Here are nine things to remember:

1. Annual reminder. The Hebrew word Rosh (ראש) means “head/beginning,” and Hashanah (השנה) means “the year.” The root of the Hebrew word Shanah is both “repeat” and “change.” It constitutes an annual reminder of the need to pursue enhanced behavior: a life-long venture. It is conducted by a repeated study of moral values, while learning from experience by avoiding past errors and enhancing/changing one’s behavior. Rosh Hashanah ushers in the Ten Days of Repentance, which are concluded on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

2.  Humility. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the sixth day of Creation, when the first human being, Adam, was created. Adam is the Hebrew word for a human being (אדם), which is derived from the Hebrew word for “soil” (אדמה). Moreover, the Hebrew letter ה is an abbreviation of God, the Creator. Thus, the date of the Jewish New Year highlights the centrality of the soil — a metaphor for humility — in human life.

3. Genesis. The Hebrew letters of Rosh (ראש) constitute the root of the Hebrew word for Genesis, pronounced “Be’re’sheet” (בראשית), which is the first word in the Book of Genesis. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei. Tishrei means beginning genesis in ancient Akkadian. The Hebrew letters of Tishrei (תשרי) are included in the spelling of genesis (בראשית). Furthermore, the Hebrew spelling of genesis (בראשית) includes the first two letters in the Hebrew alphabet (אב), the middle letter (י) and the last three letters (רשת) — representing the totality and wholesomeness of the Creation.

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4. The Shofar (ritual ram’s horn). Rosh Hashanah is announced and celebrated in a humble and determined manner, by the blowing of the shofar. The sound of the shofar used to alert people to physical threats (e.g. military assaults). On Rosh Hashanah, it alarms people to spiritual threats, while paving the potential road to salvation. It serves as a wake-up call to the necessity of cleansing one’s behavior.

5. The Jubilee. In ancient times, the blowing of the shofar was employed to announce the (50th) year of the Jubilee — the Biblical role model of liberty. The Hebrew word for Jubilee is Yovel (יובל), a synonym for shofar. The Jubilee inspired the US Founding Fathers’ concept of liberty as inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). It also inspired the US anti-slavery, abolitionist movement.

6. Enhanced behavior. The Hebrew spelling for shofar — שופר — is a derivative of the verb “to enhance,” שפר, enticing people to persist in the unending, uphill voyage of behavioral improvement.

7. Peace-through-strength. The shofar 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,” (איל) is 41 (א-1, י-10, ל-30), which is equal to the value of “mother” (אם, א-1, ם-40), who strongly shields her children. Rosh Hashanah prayers highlight the strength of the Biblical matriarchs: Sarah, Rachel, and Hanna, who gave birth to Isaac, Joseph and Benjamin, and Samuel respectively. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated during the Jewish month of Tishrei, which is “the month of the Strong Ones” (2 Kings, 8:2), when Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Samuel were born.

8. Commemoration. The 100 blows of the shofar during Rosh Hashanah services commemorate:

  • The creation of Adam, the first human being;
  • The almost-sacrifice of Isaac, which was prevented by God’s angel and a ram;
  • The receipt of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai;
  • The tumbling of the walls of Jericho upon reentering the Land of Israel;
  • Judge Gideon’s war against the Midianites;
  • The destruction of the two Jewish Temples;
  • The Jewish ingathering to the Land of Israel; and
  • The reaffirmation of faith in God, the Creator (In God We Trust).

9. Rosh Hashanah is one of four Jewish new years:

  • The first day of the month of Tishrei celebrates the anniversary of the Creation (Rosh Hashanah), the beginning of the Jewish civil calendar, the setting of the Sabbatical (7th) and Jubilee (50th) years, and the time for calculating the annual tithe (10%) on vegetable and grains.
  • The first day of the month of Nissan initiates the first of 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.

Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: a US-Israel Initiative.

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