THE JEWISH HIGH HOLY DAYS
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, but January 1st is also my birthday. We’ll have so much to celebrate on one day!”
My calendar shows that Wednesday, September 4, 2013, was the Jewish New Year. The Festival of Rosh Hashanah began at sundown on that Wednesday and continued for ten days. In a sense, Rosh Hashanah is not only the celebration of New Year’s Day in the Jewish calendar, but it is also a birthday and a wedding anniversary. It is a day to remember the birth of all creation and the marital union of Adam and Eve. It is a time of new beginnings, a season filled with reason to celebrate.
For those ten days, our Jewish friends and neighbors observed their High Holy Days. The importance of those days 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 them spiritual values that we all share.
Rosh Hashanah emphasizes the special relationship between God and humanity. We are all dependent upon God as our Creator and Sustainer, and God depends upon us to make his divine presence known and felt in the world. In the Jewish community, it is the time to honor God as sovereign.
Rosh Hashanah observances include eating a slice of apple dipped in honey to symbolize the desire for a sweet new year. It is a time to bestow a blessing on others with the words, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” As with every major religious holiday, candles are lighted, prayers are offered, and thanksgiving is expressed with the symbols of wine and Challah bread.
On Rosh Hashanah the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, calls the congregation to worship and to repentance. The tones of the horn are similar to the trumpet blast heralding the coronation of a monarch. Rosh Hashanah marks the first of ten days of repentance, or Days of Awe. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, marks the conclusion of this period of repentance.
This year Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Friday, September 13. It is a day of fasting. In the late afternoon on the day before Yom Kippur, honey cake is eaten in acknowledgement that all people are intended to be recipients of God’s goodness. Gifts are made to charity in the prayerful hope for an abundant year. Jewish families celebrate by enjoying a meal, blessing the children, and lighting memorial candles as well as holiday candles. Then families attend an atonement service at the synagogue.
Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, is a day of closeness to God. 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). Faithful Jews fast from food and drink and abstain from other activities in order to have time for repentance, prayer, and reflection.
For the Jewish community, Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the year, yet an undertone of thanksgiving is a part of the observance. Joy derives from 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.
Many of us learned as children a simple table blessing that begins with the profound affirmation, God is great, and God is good. Perhaps that is an apt summary of the meaning of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days between.
God is great, and God is good. 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 compelling us to share with others. In goodness, God, through grace and mercy, accepts our repentance and forgives our sins.
God is great and God is good.
Let us thank Him.
All of us.