Judi's Journal

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Rosh Hashanah Message for 2010

By Judi Siegal

In a few short days, Jews all over the world will be ushering the New Year of 5771. Many will be attending the special High Holiday services which mark this very holy and penitential time of the year. I would like to give you a glimpse into some of the liturgical offerings in order to give you a better understanding of the nature of the holidays.

As with all Jewish festivals of biblical origin, the services for the holiday begin at sundown with candle lighting. Sundown begins Jewish holidays in reference to the creation story stating, “there was evening and there was morning, day one”. Light is the symbol of the divine. The Rosh Hashanah evening service follows the format for an evening service but adds special psalms and prayers of a penitential nature since this is the season for self-improvement and reflection on past deeds. The blessing of wine, called the Kiddush, sanctifies the holiday as well. The service sets the stage for the major service, the morning service, of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. (The holiday is celebrated for two days. This came about because in ancient days, the news of the new moon sighting, which announced the new month, took time to travel through Israel so another day was added to ensure the holiday was observed.)

The morning service for Rosh Hashanah also follows a liturgical pattern with morning blessings thanking the Creator for health and for the new day. There is the call to worship, the Borechu, the Shema (Jewish statement of belief), penitential prayers, a standing prayer of silent meditation and an interesting feature found only on these special days, the Blowing of the Shofar, or ram’s horn.

In the Reconstructionist prayer book, there is emphasis on the psalms, which mention the shofar in the text or allude to it in special passages. More traditional prayer books concentrate on God’s kingship and sovereignty and refer to the shofar blasts that accompanied the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Its sounds have many interpretations, but its shrill blasts are traditionally sounded to arouse the worshipper to return to God, repent all sins and to do acts of charity and righteousness.

One of the most famous prayers of the liturgy of the day is the Unetaneh Tokef. Written centuries ago, the prayer talks of this awesome and holy season and of God deciding “who shall live and who shall die … who by fire, who by sword, who by famine, who by plague….” As a modern, I find this prayer very disturbing because it speaks of one’s own mortality, a topic people do not like to ponder. However, taken in context of the times when people thought that all calamities in nature and wars, plagues, famine, etc. were divine retribution for sins, we have a better understanding of the prayer. In light of the occurrences, both good and bad, that happen to us in life, however disturbing this prayer may be to me, it does serve as a reminder to make the best of the time we are allotted on earth.

In a ritual now only done on the High Holidays, the service leader prostrates him or herself before the holy ark where the Torah is kept in submission to God’s kingship. While Jews bow and do other acts of prayer actions, prostration is left for other religions. However, during the Aleynu prayer, which talks of God’s kingship and a desire for peace on earth, this action is performed with two sturdy helpers nearby to help the leader off the floor! The prayer, once only done on the High Holidays, now is found toward the end of every Jewish service throughout the year, but one only bows at a specific point and the prayer leader does not prostrate before the ark.

The Kol Nidre service, or the evening service for the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, is the most solemn one of the year. The stirring melody of the Kol Nidre prayer never fails to move Jewish worshippers. The service takes its name from this prayer, actually a renouncement of vows to God, which could not be kept. Though shrouded in mystery, this prayer, written in Aramaic in a strict legal formula, read or chanted three times, is often associated with the Jews at the time of the Inquisition when they were forced to accept Christianity but practiced Judaism in secret. It was at this time of the year, that these secret Jews would beg forgiveness for going against Jewish law by their actions during the year. Whatever its origins, the plaintive chant of the prayer sets the mood for the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is unique in the Jewish cadre of holidays in that food is not a major component! This day, Jews refrain from eating and fast all day. The fast actually started at sundown the night before and will end, traditionally, at sundown, when Yom Kippur ends. The break the fast meal, in Eastern European tradition, consists of dairy foods, light fare, considered easier to digest than a heavy meal after a fast.

The service, which begins in the morning and continues throughout the day, contains many elements and features not found during the year such as the Martyrology and are special to this important holiday. During the additional part of the service, called the Musaf, (alludes to the special, additional sacrifices made in the Temple) the actions of the High Priest are reenacted during a section called the Avodah. Here we get a glimpse of what when on during Yom Kippur during the days of the Temple cult.

In elaborate fashion and much attention to detail, the liturgy describes the rituals the High Priest in the Temple performed at this holy time of the year. There were confessions for his household, the people of Israel and for the world at large. In one of the rituals, two he-goats were brought before the Priest. By lot, it was determined which one would be sacrificed and which one would be set free in the wilderness. The one left free, with the sins of Israel, symbolically on his head, became known as the scapegoat, i.e. he escaped into the wilderness. The term “scapegoat” meaning one who takes the blame, comes from this action. It was also a time when the Tetragrammaton, or ineffable name of God was pronounced. We no longer know this name since it was only known to the High Priests. Mispronounced as “Jehovah,” Jews use the term, Adonai for this reason.

The High Holidays end with a final confession, a loud blast of the shofar and a hope for a good New Year. May 5771, which the rabbis considered to be the date of creation (they were off by a landslide historically but spiritually is what counted!) be a year of peace, prosperity for Israel and for the world at large.