A Rosh Hashanah Guide for the Perplexed
The evening of September 6, 2021, will launch another Jewish New Year. Here are some facts about the holiday that are worth remembering:
1. Annual reminder. The Hebrew word Rosh (ראש) means first/head/beginning, and Hashanah (השנה) means the year. The root of the Hebrew word Shanah is both “repeat” and “change.” Rosh Hashanah constitutes an annual reminder of the need to enhance one’s behavior through a systematic study of moral values, learning from experience, and avoiding past errors. 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 given life. Adam is the Hebrew word for a human-being (אדמ), which is the root of the Hebrew word for “soil” (אדמה). Moreover, the Hebrew letter הis 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 (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 — “the month of the Strong Ones” (Book of Kings A 8:2) — when the three Jewish Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and the Prophet Samuel were born. Tishrei means beginning/Genesis in ancient Acadian. 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), a middle letter (י) and the last three letters (רשת) — representing the totality of the Creation.
4. The Shofar (a 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 challenges (e.g., military assaults). On Rosh Hashanah, it alerts people to spiritual challenges, while paving the potential road to salvation. It serves as a wake-up call to the necessity of cleansing one’s behavior. The shofar represents “peace-through-strength,” as demonstrated by the peaceful ram, which is equipped with powerful and deterring horns.
In ancient times, the blowing of the shofar was employed to announce the year of the Jubilee — which highlights the Biblical role model of liberty. 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).
5. Commemoration. The 100 blows of the shofar during Rosh Hashanah — which is also called “The Day of Blowing the Shofar” (Yom Te’rooah) — commemorate the following:
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 re-entering the Land of Israel, which was facilitated by the blowing of ram horns;
Judge Gideon’s war against the Midianites, which featured the blowing of ram horns;
The reaffirmation of faith in God, the Creator (“In God We Trust”).
The 100 blows of the shofar are divided into three series, commemorating the three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), the three parts of the Old Testament (the Torah, Prophets, Writings) and the three types of human beings (pious, mediocre, evil). According to King Solomon, “a triple-braided cord is not easily broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12).”
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of “Second Thought: a U.S.-Israel Initiative.”