By Alanna Berman
Growing up in San Francisco’s famous Mission District, I was surrounded by people from every culture and creed. You name the religion or nationality, and I had a friend in school who identified with it; obviously, I learned a lot about our cultural differences. I went to a small K-8 school with a total student body of about 300, and we were encouraged to celebrate our traditions openly, which is why I grew up knowing that “Gung Hay Fat Choy,” was a traditional greeting for the Chinese New Year, falling sometime between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20.
Likewise, I knew we would likely still be on ‘holiday break,’ — a politically correct alternative to the former ‘Christmas break’ — until after Jan. 1, allowing everyone to get back into their normal sleep patterns after staying up all night celebrating the Western New Year, rooted in Christianity.
Of course, we also celebrated the Jewish New Year, but that was mostly nothing more than decorating the classroom with the Star of David. While, during the Chinese or “Lunar” New Year, we decorated our classrooms in shades of red and traded small envelopes traditionally given to children with money inside, there was nothing really to do on Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps it was because the teachers didn’t know enough about its religious customs to talk about them, or perhaps it was because Rosh Hashanah really is personal in nature, and it’s an occasion for introspection and thoughtfulness — not the stuff, usually, of classrooms full of 7-year-olds.
Even if its customs are not transferable to a school setting, the traditions we come back to year after year on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah are brimming with a rich mixture of joy, anticipation, reflection, mending bruised relationships and becoming better people.
The head of the year
Rosh Hashanah is celebrated as the head of the Jewish year, with Rosh literally meaning ‘head’ and Hashanah meaning ‘the year.’ Some rabbis also associated Rosh Hashanah with the moment of the creation of the universe, leading to the often deeply spiritual celebrations around this time of the year.
“The connection between Rosh Hashanah and the creation of the world, [allows us the] opportunity to reconnect with natural time,” says Rabbi Scott Meltzer of Ohr Shalom Synagogue, “which is especially important during a time when we are more separated from the natural world and the natural operation of the world. We control nature in all sorts of ways, and we pay a high price for living outside of the natural world. So Rosh Hashanah, by being connected to the creation of the world, is an opportunity to reattach, to reconnect.”
The second piece of the puzzle involves the end of Rosh Hashanah, which officially kicks off the Ten Days of Awe, where we are asked to examine our actions from the past year and begin to reconcile our behavior with those we may have harmed.
“As opposed to making resolutions on Jan. 1, when we wake up on New Years Day and say ‘I have to lose weight, I have to stop eating French fries, I have to call my dad more,’ …the process with Rosh Hashanah doesn’t begin the day with looking forward, it begins with looking backward,” Rabbi Meltzer says. “We are asked to reflect on where we’ve made bad decisions, where we’ve let ourselves down, where we’ve let God down, where we have failed to live up to that image to which we aspire, and then to spend time strategically trying to fix my wrongs from yesterday and working hard to ensure I don’t make the same mistakes moving into the future.”
In other words, if we make a New Year’s resolution on Jan. 1 to exercise and join a fitness club, but we stop going after just a few days, no one is there to hold us accountable. When we make similar pledges to change our ways for Rosh Hashanah, we know God is there to keep us honest.
Continues Rabbi Meltzer, “Before I get to shul on the first of Tishrei, I am supposed to have spent the previous month getting ready and soul-searching, making reparations, seeking forgiveness and quite often seeking professional help to allow me to be ready on Yom Kippur,” Rabbi Meltzer says. “This month, we are seeking to make resolutions that are the outcome of serious work and to make a plan of action to carry them into the future.”
The Talmud states that only if you have tried to right the wrongs of the last year and asked for forgiveness from those you may have harmed, may you stand in front of God on Yom Kippur and ask for forgiveness of any of your own personal sins or shortcomings.
The sound of the shofar
Traditionally, the shofar is sounded during Rosh Hashanah as a call to action. Its use dates to biblical times and is noted in the book of Genesis, with the ram’s horn commemorating the story of the binding of Isaac, when Abraham sacrificed a ram as an offering to God instead of killing his son. The sounding of the shofar is used as a reminder of this moment and is intended as an alarm for those who hear it.
“The blessing that the rabbis created [highlights] the fact that we are supposed to hear the sound of the shofar,” Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Martin Lawson says. “It’s not the sounding itself that’s the important thing, it’s the fact that the community is supposed to hear it and as a result, be called to an alert: to wake up and get themselves together, get their lives going in the right direction. [In the biblical story,] not only is Isaac spared, but Abraham in a sense now has to move ahead with his life and has a whole new perspective as a result.”
The Tashlich ceremony
More so a custom than a law, the Tashlich ceremony, though originally an Orthodox tradition, has now been almost universally embraced by all Jewish denominations. The act of going to a body of water and throwing breadcrumbs from one’s pocket is a way to ceremoniously cast away previous transgressions.
“The liturgical idea is that we are casting away our sins, but in reality it’s not that easy,” says Rabbi Meltzer. “Now, you spend the coming nine days free from those bread crumbs, free from those sins, but working hard to gain forgiveness for them.”
The renowned 18th century Kabbalist Rabbi Isaiah Hurwitz wrote that “it is foolish for Jews to assume they can shake off their sins by shaking their pockets into a stream,” but even he observed Tashlich.
More psychological than anything else, Tashlich is one of release, but not considered one of the most important duties during the holiday. The real work comes later.
Apples, honey, round challah and honey cake
As with many of the Jewish holidays, there are certain foods certain to be at any Rosh Hashanah celebration. Most of these customs originated in Jewish households over the years to remind us of the sweetness of the coming year, but they have no real biblical ties to the observance of Rosh Hashanah.
The tradition of dipping apples in honey, for example, has grown as a popular Rosh Hashanah dessert for Jewish children. Some say the apples are symbolic of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the honey is a symbol of Israel, the “land of milk and honey,” although there is no direct text which calls for us to consume these foods together.
The meaning behind round challah, however, is generally agreed upon.
“[It] symbolizes the circularity of the year, and many people will make the challah in the shape of the crown of a king to remind us of God’s sovereignty,” Rabbi Lawson says.
Sometimes filled with fruit to symbolize the sweetness of the new year, the challah is often also dipped in honey at the Rosh Hashanah table for the same reason. The Eastern European tradition of serving honey cake, or lekach, serves the same purpose, although the concept behind lekach is mentioned in Proverbs 4:2. It is widely believed that those who observe Jewish traditions will be blessed with a “goodly portion.” (“For I gave you good doctrine [lekach], do not forsake my teaching.”)
The Jewish New Year is unlike any other cultural New Year’s celebration, in that we are called upon to make ourselves — and therefore the world — a better place through thoughtful reflection. Imagine if, on Dec. 31, you looked around to find people forgiving one another at midnight, after carefully thinking about ways they had wronged each other during the past year. If everyone took the time to improve his or her dealings with one another, how would the world be different? By taking personal inventory during Rosh Hashanah, we can not only heal ourselves, but we can also improve the way we interact with one another, healing the world one discarded bread crumb at a time.