Rosh Hashanah Guide for the Perplexed
Based on Jewish Sages, September 13, 2012
1. Rosh Hashanah and the Shofar (ritual ram’s horn) symbolize and commemorate:
*The annual reaffirmation of faith in God;
*The first human-being, Adam, was created on Rosh Hashanah, the sixth day of Creation, the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrey;
*The opening of Noah’s Ark following the flood;
*The almost-sacrifice of Isaac (thou shall not sacrifice human beings!) and the covenant of the Jewish People with God;
*The three Jewish Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Prophet Samuel (the latter inspired Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense,” the cement of the American Revolution), were conceived/born during the month of Tishrey, which is called "The Month of the Strong Ones";
*The release of Joseph from Egyptian jail;
*Mt. Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandment and the Torah;
*The commitment to liberty. The blowing of the Shofar also announces the beginning of the Jubilee, “Yovel” in Hebrew, which is a synonym of Shofar. The blowing of the Shofar represents deliverance from spiritual and physical slavery. It inspired the anti-slavery Abolitionist movement in the USA;
*The reconstruction of the 2nd Temple and the destruction of both Temples;
*The ingathering (Aliya) to the Jewish Homeland, the land of Israel;
*The cycle of nature - seed planting season and the equality of day and night;
*Optimism in the face of daily adversity – genuine repentance and mending behavior warrants forgiveness;
*The fallibility of all human-beings, starting with Adam and including the most pious persons, such as Moses;
*Humility as an effective means to minimize wrong-doing;
*Restraint. Patience and long-term commitment – “Hashanah” in Hebrew (השנה) means “the year,” “change” and “repeat.” No quick fixes!
*The “Ten Days of Awe” are initiated on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur.
2. Rosh Hashanah – unlike all other Jewish holidays – is a universal (stock-taking, renewal and hopeful) holiday. “Rosh” (Hashanah) means in Hebrew "beginning," "first," "head," "chief." The Hebrew letters of Rosh (ראש) constitute the root of the Hebrew word for Genesis, "Bereshit" (בראשית), which is the first word in the Bible. Just like the Creation, so should the New Year and our own actions, be a thoughtful, long-term – not a hasty - process. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated at the beginning of the Jewish month of Tishrey, which means beginning/Genesis in ancient Acadian. The Hebrew spelling of Tishrey (תשרי) is included in the spelling of Genesis (בראשית). Rosh Hashanah is referred to as "Ha'rat Olam" (the pregnancy of the world), and its prayers highlight motherhood, optimism and the pregnancies of Sarah and Rachel, the Jewish Matriarchs, and Hanna, who gave birth to Isaac, Joseph & Benjamin and Samuel the Prophet respectively. Sarah, שרה (the root of the Hebrew word, Israel, ישראל) and Hanna, חנה (the root of the Hebrew words Pardon, Amnesty and Merciful, חנינה) were two of the seven Jewish Prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Hanna, Deborah, Huldah, Abigail, Esther. Hanna's prayer has become a role-model for God-heeded prayers. Noah – who led the rebirth of humanity/world – also features in Rosh Hashanah prayers.
3. The three pillars of Rosh Hashanah: Repentance (returning to good deeds – תשובה – in Hebrew), Prayer and Charity (doing justice – צדקה – in Hebrew).
4. The Hebrew word for atonement/repentance is Te'shuvah (תשובה), which also means “return” to core morality and values and to the Land of Israel. On Rosh Hashanah, one is expected to plan a "spiritual/behavioral budget" for the entire year. The three Hebrew words, Teshuvah (Repentance/Atonement, תשובה), Shivah (Spiritual and Physical Return, שיבה) and Shabbat (Creation concluded, שבת) emerge from the same Hebrew root. They constitute a triangular foundation, whose strength depends on the depth of education and commemoration. According to King Solomon, "The triangular cord cannot be broken."
5. Rosh Hashanah is mentioned in the Book of Numbers (29:1) as “the day of the Shofar blast" (Yom Te'roo'ah in Hebrew). The Shofar (ritual ram's horn) is blown on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call, a break away from the professional, social and political mundane, in order to recommit oneself to roots and basic values, repair our order of priorities and mend human behavior. Shofar (שופר) is a derivative of the Hebrew word for enhancement/improvement (שפור). Blowing the Shofar symbolizes a new beginning – replaying the birth of the Jewish People – and the receipt of the Torah - at Mount Sinai, which was accompanied by sounding the Shofar.
6. The Shofar should be humble (bent and not decorated), natural and unassuming, just like the foundation of a positive character in general and leadership in particular.
7. The Shofar is the epitome of peace-through-strength. It is made from the horn of a ram, which is a peaceful animal equipped with strong horns, fending off predators. The numerical value of the Hebrew word, "ram" (איל), is 41, equal to the value of "mother" (אם), who strongly protects her children.
8. While the blowing of the Shofar is a major virtue, listening to the Shofar is at least as important a virtue. The Hebrew root of "listening," האזנה, is Ozen, ear (אוזן), which contains the balancing mechanism in our body (אזון). Ozen is also the root for "Scale" (מאזניים) and "Balance," which is the zodiac sign of the month of Tishrey. Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (when people balance their good deeds vs. bad deeds) are observed during the month of Tishrey.
9. The three ways of blowing the Shofar express the inner constant values (Te'kiyah), the tenacious human marathon through success and failure (She'va'rim), and the determined pursuit of faith-driven long-term vision (Troo'ah).
10. The three series of blowing the Shofar represent the faith of mankind in God (Malkhooyot), the centrality of history/memory/roots and God's Covenant with the Jewish People (Zichronot) and repentance/enhancement (Shofarot).
11. The three different soundings of the Shofar represent the three Patriarchs (Abraham – tenacity, fighting capabilities and mercy, Isaac – benevolence, Jacob – truth), the three parts of the Bible and the three types of human beings (pious, evil and mediocre), all of whom are worthy of renewal.
12. Rosh Hashanah services include 101 blows of the Shofar. It is the numerical value of the Hebrew spelling of Michael, a Guardian Angel, which was one of the names of Moses.
13. The pomegranate - one of the seven species that bless the Land of Israel – is featured during Rosh Hashanah: "May you be credited with as many rewards as the seeds of the pomegranate." The pomegranate becomes ripe in time for Rosh Hashanah and contains - genetically - 613 seeds, which is the number of Jewish statues. The pomegranate was employed as an ornament of the Holy Arc, the holy Menorah (candelabrum), the coat of the High Priest and the Torah Scrolls. The first two letters of the Hebrew word for pomegranate (רמון), Rimon – which is known for its crown - mean sublime (Ram, רמ). The pomegranate (skin and seeds) is one of the healthiest fruit: high in iron, anti-oxidants, anti-cancer, decreases blood pressure, enhances the quality of blood and the cardiac and digestion systems. Rimon is a metaphor for a wise person: wholesome like a pomegranate.
14. Honey is included in Rosh Hashanah meals in order to sweeten the coming year. The bee is the only insect which produces essential food. It is a community-oriented, constructive and a diligent creature. The Hebrew spelling of bee (דבורה) is identical to “the word of God” (דבור-ה).
15. Shofar Blowing Commemoration Day (Leviticus 23) is one of the names of Rosh Hashanah. One can avoid - rather than repeat - past mistakes by learning from history. The more one remembers, the deeper are the roots and the greater is one's stability and one's capability to withstand storms of pressure and temptation. The more stable/calculated/moral is the beginning of the year (Rosh Hashanah), the more constructive will be the rest of the year.
May the New Year (5773 according to the Jewish calendar) be top heavy with truth, realism and tenacity and low on distortion, wishful-thinking and vacillation.