Rosh Hashanah represents spiritual, celebratory period
Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld blows into a specially crafted ram's horn to sound a series of blasts and staccato sobs as old as Judaism itself.
For Orthodox followers like Rosenfeld, who is dean of Yeshiva Schools and rabbi of Lubavitch Center in Squirrel Hill, the blowing of the shofar heralds Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that begins at sundown Sept. 4.
Marking 5774 on the Hebrew calendar, the season includes a 10-day period of introspection that culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement — a 24-hour period of fasting and repentance — followed by Sukkot, a seven-day celebration of the harvest bounty and a remembrance of the time Jews left Egypt to establish religious freedom in Israel.
The shofar's dramatic sounds will be heard many times during this intensely spiritual season, when Jews also eat special foods and observe other ancient customs that commemorate the creation of the world and a personal commitment to start fresh.
“We improve on our religious affinity, our awareness of God, who is reviewing us and making judgments about what blessings we'll get in the coming year,” says Rabbi Avrohom Rodkin, director of education at Kollel Jewish Learning Center in Squirrel Hill. “The shofar is like a spiritual alarm clock that wakes us from our slumber to better our ways.”
The horn of a ram, sheep or goat is used, because a ram was sacrificed to God by Abraham, founder of the Jewish people. “Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac to show his faith in God, but God didn't want a human sacrifice,” Rodkin says. “So Abraham, instead, offered a ram that was caught in a nearby thicket.”
“The shofar ‘reminisces' that great event,” Rodkin says.
Rosh Hashanah is a happy occasion, marked by festive meals Sept. 5 and 6, Rodkin says. “Classic Jewish thought focuses on the positive side.”
Jews eat apple slices dipped in honey in hopes of filling themselves with sweetness, and pomegranates to ensure as many good deeds as the fruit has seeds, Rodkin says. “The apple has nothing to do with the Garden of Eden, by the way. Apples are a sweet gift from God.
“We also taste from the head of a fish, or, if we're very brave, the head of a sheep, to show we hope to merit a year in which we are on top of things, not the bottom.”
Rosh Hashanah is one of few holidays when busy mothers, like Karen Beaudway of Ambridge, make their own challah — a braided egg bread. “Thank God for bread machines,” says Beaudway, who also plans to serve brisket, a noodle or potato-base casserole called kugel and homemade honey cake.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, she and her family will follow custom and go to a river or lake to cast bread to fish. “It symbolizes a casting away of sins,” says Beaudway, who is a board member of Beth Samuel in Ambridge.
She will keep her children, ages 7 and 11, home from school to observe the holiday and to reflect on setting noble goals for the year ahead.
Children younger than 13 aren't required to fast or make other sacrifices on Yom Kippur, a day when Jews shun the material world and focus entirely on spirituality.
“We avoid distractions and creature comforts, and spend the day in prayer,” Rodkin says.
There is no eating or drinking — not even water — no “anointing” with lotions or perfumes and no marital relations, he says. “We don't wear leather shoes, because they are considered a creature comfort. Some men and women choose to wear white to emulate angels, which are beings created for spiritual missions.”
It also is customary to approach anyone we have hurt in the past year and ask forgiveness, Rodkin says. “The idea is to begin again as friends.”
At Rodef Shalom, a Reform congregation in Oakland, Rabbi Aaron Bisno plans to challenge worshippers to turn off their smartphones and cellphones, at least during periods of prayer, to fully embrace the spirit of the season. “Powering off is godly,” he says. “Silence is golden.”
Bisno encouraged it last year after reading about a Florida rabbi who urged parishioners to “tweet” their thoughts about the New Year, so she could project them onto a big screen. It seemed at odds with the prayerfulness the holiday requires, says Bisno, who asked his congregation to disconnect.
“We want to meet people where they are, but we've gotten so used to being constantly on-call, we're afraid to be alone with our own heartbeat, our own thoughts,” he says. “If you can't unplug at this time of year and allow yourself and your neighbor some sanctuary from the constant stimuli of the world, then when can you?”
Bisno also will remind worshippers that repentance for wrongdoing shouldn't be reserved for one day a year.
The Talmud, the book of Jewish law, instructs Jews to make atonement on the day before they die, but because so few know when that will be, “we should do the right thing all the time,” Bisno says.
“As soon as we are aware we haven't met our potential or lived up to our responsibilities, we should do it. We shouldn't waste another moment.”
Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.