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September 29, 2008



Several years ago, I officiated at a wedding on New Year’s Day. At the rehearsal the evening before, I commented on how the alignment of the days would make it easier for the groom to remember his wedding anniversary. The bride said, “Not only that, January 1st is also my birthday.”

Monday, September 29, 2006, is the Jewish New Year. The festival of Rosh Hashanah, literally the head of the year, begins at sundown and continues throughout the following day. Rosh Hashanah is not only the celebration of New Year’s Day in the Jewish calendar, it is also a birthday and a wedding anniversary. It is a day to remember the birth of all creation and the union of Adam and Eve.

Harvey Cox is Christian theologian. His wife, Nina, is Jewish. In his book, Common Prayers, Cox shares some of the ways that he and Nina have grown spiritually in the context of their interfaith marriage.

His book follows the holidays of the Jewish year, explaining meaning of each observance. He begins with The Jewish High Holy Days, the ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah and conclude with Yom Kippur.

Early in the twentieth century, Rudolf Otto, a German philosopher, published The Idea of The Holy. Otto coined a Latin phrase that has become commonplace in theology, mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Simply put, it means that the mystery of God’s presence evokes a trembling shudder and a sense of fascination. These holidays remind the Jewish community that God is both awesome and merciful.

Harvey Cox recalls the old fashioned revivals of his Baptist upbringing. He remembers the fearful sense of a righteous God and the comforting awareness of divine grace.

He contends both church and synagogue have too often proclaimed a user-friendly God. Some even rely on marketing strategies to determine what will be included in worship. The Jewish holidays encourage a reaffirmation of the sovereign God who is righteous and merciful, holy and loving.    

Celebration of Rosh Hashanah includes eating a piece of apple dipped in honey to symbolize the desire for a sweet new year. A blessing is bestowed on others with the words, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” As with every major Jewish festival, after candle lighting and prayers, the Kiddush, a blessing over wine to sanctify the day, is recited. A blessing is offered to God for the gift of Challah bread.

Central to Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, similar to a trumpet blast heralding the coronation of a king.

Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz shared a story about an American tourist in Israel. The traveler asked why the taxi driver had no wristwatch.  How could he know the time?

“I have a shofar. When I get home late at night I go out on my porch and sound the ram’s horn loudly. Within seconds, one of my neighbors will yell: ‘It’s two o’clock in the morning!’”

For the Jewish people the sound of the shofar means it is time to repent.

Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world and the first of ten days of repentance. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, marks the conclusion of these Days of Awe.

Before Yom Kippur, penitential prayers are recited. Participants receive honey cake acknowledging that all people are recipients of God’s goodness. In prayerful hope for an abundant year, it is a time for giving extra charity.

In the late afternoon, Jewish families enjoy a meal.  Blessings are said for the children, memorial candles as well as holiday candles are lit, and the family goes to the synagogue for services. Then, for the next twenty-six hours, faithful Jews fast from food and drink, and abstain from other pleasurable activities in order to have time for repentance, prayer, and reflection.

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. Scripture defines the purpose of the Day of Atonement. “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before God” (Leviticus 16:30).

The day is the most solemn of the year, yet an undertone of thanksgiving is a part of the observance. Notes of joy express the confidence that God will accept the repentance of His people and forgive their sins. Hope for a year of life, health, and happiness is an integral part of Yom Kippur.

For the next ten days, our Jewish friends and neighbors will be observing these High Holy Days. The importance of this season to their faith is akin to the importance of Holy Week for Christians and Ramadan for Muslims. While it would be inappropriate for non-Jews to borrow these holidays, we can certainly strive to understand their significance.     

We can also find in these Days of Awe spiritual values that we all share.

Many of us learned as children a simple table blessing that begins with the profound affirmation, God is great; God is good. Perhaps that is an apt summary of the meaning of these days.

A great God created and sustains all of life. In greatness, God presides in sovereign majesty over the entire world. A good God has provided for us all things necessary for life. In goodness, God through grace and mercy accepts our repentance and forgives our sins.

Indeed, God is great and God is good.

Let’s us all be thankful.


Kirk H. Neely

© September 2008  

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