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September 25, 2022

Some 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 1 is also my birthday.  We’ll have so much to celebrate on one day!”  The Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a new year, a birthday, and a wedding remembrance.

My calendar shows that the Jewish New Year begins at sundown today, Sunday, September 25, 2022.  The Festival of Rosh Hashanah continues through Tuesday, September 27.  Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is one of Judaism’s holiest days.  Meaning, head of the year or first of the year, the festival begins on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which falls during September or October.  This new year is 5783 in the Jewish calendar, but Rosh Hashanah is also a birthday and a wedding anniversary.  It is a day to remember the birth of all creation, followed by Adam and Eve’s marital union in scripture.  It is a day of new beginnings filled with reason to celebrate.

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 day to honor God as sovereign.

Harvey Cox is a 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 the 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.    

Our Jewish friends and neighbors will observe their High Holy Days for ten days.  The importance of this season to their faith is akin to the significance 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 may also find in them spiritual values that we all share.

Rosh Hashanah marks the first of ten days of repentance or Days of Awe.  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, the Kiddush, a blessing over wine to sanctify the day, is recited after candle lighting and prayers. 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.  This hollowed-out horn from a sheep or a goat is similar to those used by Joshua at the battle of Jericho and Giddeon when he defeated the Midianites.  While neither Rosh Hashanah nor the ram’s horn is never mentioned explicitly in the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures do refer to this holiday as Yom Teruah, literally a day of shouting or blasting. The blasting of the shofar calls the congregation to worship and to repentance.  The tones of the horn are akin to a trumpet blast heralding the coronation of a king.  The sound is a reminder of the sovereignty of God.

My good friend, Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, shared a story about an American tourist in Israel.  The traveler asked why his 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.

Yom Kippur is the holiest, most important day of the year in Judaism, known as the Day of Atonement. This year Yom Kippur begins at sundown Tuesday, October 4, 2022, and ends Wednesday evening, October 5, the last of the ten days of penitence that began with Rosh Hashanah.

Yom Kippur commemorates the day Moses came down from Mount Sinai after seeking God’s divine forgiveness for the Israelites who sinned against him by worshipping an idol of a golden calf.  Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, marks the conclusion of this period of repentance.

Yom Kippur is a day of fasting.  The high holidays often include the concept of the book of life, the Sefer Chayim, in which God records our destinies for the coming year.  Whatever is negative can be avoided through prayer, repentance, and charity.

In the late afternoon on the day before Yom Kippur, honey cake is eaten in acknowledgment 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.

Yom Kippur concludes with a final blast from the shofar.  Jewish families break the fast by enjoying a meal, usually breakfast food.  Who doesn’t enjoy breakfast for supper occasionally?

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 God, all of us.



Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Stories from this week’s column will appear in the forthcoming book

A Book of Days, to be published in 2023.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies.  Thank you for all you have done.  I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind.  Please continue with your kindness and generosity.  This week, please donate or volunteer, as you are able, to your place of worship or to your favorite charity.

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