September 15, 2004

Rosh Hashana

Tonight is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year (lit. head of the year). It is on the 1st and 2nd of the month of Tishrey, and is the beginning of three weeks of mo`adim – special days: Yom Kipur on the 10th, Sukot on the 15th, and Simhat Tora on the 22nd. I hope to cover each of them in their time (no promises).

On Rosh Hashana people don’t go out and get drunk (that’s a different day: Purim). Rosh Hashana is Yom Hadin – the Day of Judgment. It is paired with Yom Kipur – the Day of Atonement, the ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kipur are known as `Aseret Y’mey Hatshuva – the Ten Days or Repentance or Hayamim Hanora’im – the Days of Awe (lit. the Awesome Days). Rosh Hashana is also known as Yom Tru`a – Day of (Shofar) Blowing, and indeed we blow the shofar 100 times on this day, heralding the coming year.

The theme of the day is malkhuyot – kingship (of God), and the prayers of the day are designed to emphasize God’s kingship over the Earth. It works (at least for me). From the very first words, chanted in the special Rosh Hashana melody, I feel in my bones the majesty of this day. For me, the highpoint of the day comes with the prayer called: Un’tane Toqef. It is not a long prayer, but too long for me to post in triplicate in this blog (though I would like to), so I will post only one stanza:

בראש השנה יכתבון
וביום צום כיפור יחתמון
כמה יעברון וכמה יבראון
מי יחיה ומי ימות
מי בקצו ומי לא בקצו
מי במים ומי באש
מי בחרב ומי בחיה
מי ברעב ומי בצמא
מי ברעש ומי במגפה
מי בחניקה ומי בסקילה
מי ינוח ומי ינוע
מי ישקט ומי יטרף
מי ישלו ומי יתיסר
מי יעני ומי יעשר
מי ישפל ומי ירום

B’rosh hashana yikatevun
Uvyom som kipur yehatemun
Kama ya`avrun v’khama yibare’un
Mi yihye umi yamut
Mi b’qiso umi lo’ b’qiso
Mi bamayim umiba’esh
Mi baherev umi bahaya
Mi bara`av umi basama’
Mi bara`ash umi bamagefa
Mi bahaniqa umi basqila
Mi yanuah umi yanua`
Mi yishaqet umi yitaref
Mi yishalev umi yityaser
Mi ye`ani umi ye`asher
Mi yishafel umi yarum

On Rosh Hashana they will be written
And on the fast of Yom Kipur they will be sealed
How many will pass on and how many will be created
Who will live and who will die
Who in his time and who not in his time
Who by water and who by fire
Who by sword and who by wild animal
Who by hunger and who by thirst
Who by storm and who by plague
Who by strangulation and who by stoning
Who will rest and who will wander
Who will be quiet and who will be crazy
Who will be tranquil and will be troubled
Who will be poor and who will be rich
Who will be degraded and who will rise

It is a fearsome image: On Rosh Hashana your fate is written down, and on Yom Kipur it is sealed. In between is your last chance to change your fate through repentance. Of course, all the Jewish authorities reject this on a factual basis: God is always open to one who repents. Some say that God is especially receptive on these days, but in my opinion this is mixing cause and effect. It is man who is especially capable of repentance on these days. The very fact that they are dedicated to the theme of repentance, and on top of that the liturgy – everything in our environment is set up to facilitate it. 

On a lighter note, the day (like all holidays) is celebrated with festive meals. One tradition that I enjoy is the ceremony of simanim (signs). In the US it is traditional to eat apples dipped in honey as a siman (sign) for a shana tova umtuqa – a good and sweet year. But in Israel this custom has been expanded to any number of simanim. It works like this: You hold the siman in your hand and say, “Y’hi rason milfaneykha” – “May it be a wish before you” and then you say your wish, for example, “shet’hadesh `aleynu shana tova umtuqa” – “that you will renew upon us a good and sweet year”, and you eat the siman.

The fun part (at least for me) is that a lot of simanim are word plays. At our table, we take turns going around the table, people are free to use the ones in the book, or make up something on their own. Here are some from the book:

Leek (karti): sheyikartu son’eynu (that those who hate us will be cut off)
Beets (seleq): sheyistalqu oyveynu (that our enemies will go away)
Carrots (gezer): sheyiqra` roa` gzar dineynu (that the evil of our judgment will be torn up)
Pumpkin (qara’): sheyiqar’u l’faneykha z’khuyoteynu (that our merits will be read before you)

I probably won’t be back on line until Sunday. Until then: Shana Tova Umtuqa!

UPDATE: For the story behind Un’tane Toqef go here. For a full translation go here.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at September 15, 2004 08:44 AM
Comments & Trackbacks

I just found your blog via Europundits. It's terrific, and I'll visit again. Happy New Year.

Posted by: Totoro at September 15, 2004 03:40 PM Permalink


Posted by: Sarah at September 16, 2004 11:05 AM Permalink

Thank you both!

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at September 18, 2004 09:04 PM Permalink

Hi David,

I hope you had a wonderful Rosh Hashanah. A friend of mine has a dozen or so different and sometimes silly simanim; one is with sour sticks, but I don't know the reason---I didn't speak with her this Yom Tov, just her friend..I will have to ask her what the reason is behind it

Posted by: Rachel Ann at September 18, 2004 10:50 PM Permalink

On the second night of Rosh ha-Shana I ate with a family I know. As part of the simanim my friend brought out celery sticks with peanut butter in the center, and raisins stuck to the peanut butter. The siman? In English: "May we all have a raise in salary."

Posted by: Rahel at September 25, 2004 10:42 PM Permalink

Oh, yes -- and for an incredible modern musical setting of the prayer, head here (Track 12).

Posted by: Rahel at September 25, 2004 10:54 PM Permalink

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