Sep 25, 2008 13:33 | Updated Sep 28, 2008 0:53
Tradition Today: Reclaiming Rosh Hashana
By REUVEN HAMMER
We are on the eve of the celebration of the Yamim Nora'im, the Days of Awe,
which begin with Rosh Hashana, two days of prayer and reflection ushering in
the new year. Traditionally Rosh Hashana has been the most widely observed of
the holy days with the exception of Yom Kippur. In the Diaspora we were brought
up on the concept of "three-day-a-year Jews" - who may have observed nothing
else but came to synagogue services on the two days of Rosh Hashana and on Yom
But things are different in Israel. Here while Yom Kippur, especially Kol
Nidre, is widely observed by most Jews in one way or another, even if only by
refraining from doing anything at that time, Rosh Hashana is a great getaway
time. When else do Israelis have two days off like that? So even if synagogues
are full, the beaches, campsites and resorts are even fuller. "Religious" and
many "traditional" Jews will be in synagogues, but the secular population - the
majority - will be somewhere else. In all surveys that I have seen almost any
other holiday - Purim, Hanukka, Pessah - is observed in some way by more
Israelis than Rosh Hashana.
The reason is not difficult to discern. All of these other days are connected
with Jewish history, nature or colorful folkways. Rosh Hashana is not. It does
not commemorate any event in our history, no battle we won, no harvest. It is a
purely religious time, a day (two actually) that has no reason for being other
than the relationship between ourselves and God. So if you are not religious,
if you are not a believer, why suddenly observe this day? Why not enjoy a day
Thus it is that through the observance or non-observance of Rosh Hashana we see
the main difference between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. For the Diaspora, being
Jewish is understood and experienced primarily as one's religious
identification. Therefore belonging to a synagogue, attending at least those
three days, is a given for those who take being Jewish seriously.
In Israel, the secular Jew identifies with Jewishness ethnically,
nationalistically, sometimes culturally, but not religiously. Poor Rosh Hashana
is therefore of relatively little importance. Yom Kippur still seems to have at
least a hold on most people's feelings. Perhaps it is guilt or simply
identification with the one day when everything here shuts down.
It is the purely religious nature of the Yamim Nora'im that sets them apart
from all other holy days. Even Shabbat has a historical reason - a remembrance
of our liberation from Egyptian bondage. Rosh Hashana could easily be
celebrated by any human being willing to accept its basic premises as they have
developed over the millennia. They are specifically Jewish only insofar as
these concepts are based on Judaism's teachings.
The central teaching of Rosh Hashana is a very simple one: God is the sovereign
of the universe. This is emphasized by the fact that the first word in the
morning liturgy - Shaharit - is hamelech - "The Sovereign" This is then
repeated as a refrain in many of the liturgical poems that have been included
in the service, and is also one of the main themes of the Musaf service -
namely the section known as malchiyot - sovereignty verses and prayers. The
introduction to that section, incidentally, is the famous Aleinu prayer which
became so popular that it now concludes every service all year. It teaches us
that we live in a world that was created by God and which God rules. It holds
out the hope that eventually the entire world will acknowledge that and become
The second major concept is God as judge. Rosh Hashana is the day on which the
nations and all individuals are judged, as is spelled out in such prayers as
Unetaneh Tokef. The meaning of this is that we are responsible for our actions
- both we as individuals and we as nations. There is so much in this world that
we do not control but free will means that we must take responsibility for what
we do and there are consequences to our actions. This places tremendous
responsibility upon each of us. We cannot blame fate or sociological factors
for our actions. We are responsible for them.
And yet another important concept is the celebration of life. "Inscribe us in
the book of life" is a constantly recurring motif of the Rosh Hashana liturgy.
Life is valued above death. We celebrate being alive and express our
appreciation of the gift of life and hope to be worthy of it.
A religion that proclaims that the world is the creation of a power greater
than ourselves, that human beings should live ethical lives and are responsible
for their actions and that life is a supreme value cannot be all bad. Perhaps
those who see Rosh Hashana as only another vacation time should think again,
and even if they can only accept some of those concepts or have to reinterpret
them in their own way, they too could find value in these most spiritual of all
Jewish holy days.
The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical
Court of the Masorti Movement.