A Shofar, a ram’s horn, is used by the Jewish Temple to signal the Holy Days

On Sunday (Oct. 2, 2016) at sundown begins Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year

This is the first day of the Jewish month of Tishri, during which Jews observe the commandments of the books of Leviticus (23:23-25) and Numbers (29:1-6) to celebrate a sacred occasion and sound a horn.

There will be no fireworks or parties as with the American New Year. The loudest thing will be sounding the shofar, a ram’s horn, and that will only be at the end of congregational prayers the following day.

Rosh Hashana begins a somber period of reflection. In Jewish tradition, this is the day that the Good Lord opens His Book of Deeds. This is the record of the actions of every person. The Lord reviews those of the previous year, and keeps the Book open for 10 days.

During this time, each Jew contemplates the past and seeks forgiveness for transgressions. Each Jew seeks forgiveness for word or actions that have been hurtful to someone else, whether that was the intent or not.

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the lord closes the Book and records His plans for everyone for the year to come. 

Rosh Hashanah begins in each Jewish home with lighting the holiday candles, the Kiddush sanctifying the day, a blessing over the wine for the coming meal, and a special prayer thanking the Lord for letting us reach this special time.

After blessing the bread, the dinner commences with dipping a piece of apple in honey and a prayer for a sweet and happy year. The meal varies, but Jews of Eastern European origin often include a beef brisket, potatoes and kasha, a grain of buckwheat.

Prayers and readings

Congregational prayer in the evening and morning of Rosh Hashana emphasizes the purpose of the Holy Day, calling us to reflect on past deeds, accept judgment and pray for the Lord to grant another year to do better.

A special prayer is the Unetaneh Tokef, composed by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the 11th century CE, just before dying for refusing to renounce his faith. The prayer declares that "the great shofar is sounded … As a shepherd musters his sheep and causes them to pass beneath his staff, so dost Thou (the Lord) pass and record, count and visit, every living soul, appointing the measure of every creature’s life and decreeing its destiny." This is a profound distillation of the essence of this Holy Day and those to come.

During congregational services, there are various readings from the Bible. Selections from the Books of Moses include the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, and Abraham’s demonstration of faith by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at the command of the Lord — faith rewarded by the Lord providing a ram instead for sacrifice.

There may also be readings from First Samuel about the importance of a mother, Hannah, in the raising of the prophet Samuel, and Jeremiah regarding the ultimate redemption of Israel after the first exile.

Closing the day is an afternoon ceremony called Tashlich, during which some congregants gather along a flowing stream. They symbolically cast their sins into the water in the hope that the sins will not be repeated.

Why is New Year’s in the fall?

Close readers of the Bible might be confused with the first of Tishri being the Jewish New Year. Exodus 12:2 fixes the New Year with the spring equinox, declaring that the Exodus would take place on the fifthteenth day after that. That is commemorated in the spring Holy day of Passover. So why, now, is the Jewish New Year suddenly in the fall?

Many cultures celebrate their new year with spring and new growth rising from the soil to begin the agricultural year. The Hebrews followed this tradition, and also took Babylonian names for the months of their lunar calendar. Nissan was the first month, and the Exodus from Egypt was set for the middle of that month. The seventh month was Tishri, and Leviticus and Numbers ordered that to be the Jewish New Year.

Serendipitously, the Zodiac sign for this month is scales. Although Judaism places little credence in astrology, the symbol does invoke the idea that the Lord is measuring our deeds on scales of justice for His determination of our future.

Daniel E. Spector is a member of Temple Beth El in Anniston. He has a doctorate in history, focusing on Jewish history and the Middle East.