Every year as summer begins to give way to autumn, Jewish people throughout the world gather in synagogues and homes to celebrate the High Holy Days, the ten “Days of Awe.” The message of their celebrations is one of spiritual renewal, fresh starts, and repentance. Every year I try to incorporate their spirituality into my own and join them in spirit and in prayer. I am deeply drawn to the traditions and rituals that Jesus himself would have known. Delving into Jewish spirituality connects me to the deepest roots of my own Christian faith.
I am missioned in Birmingham, AL, where we are blessed with three Jewish synagogues. For several years, through the kindness of Rabbi Jonathan Miller of the Reform Temple Emanu-El, I attended some of the High Holy Day services along with members of my Scripture classes. We were graciously welcomed to participate in the most sacred of their yearly services.
Rosh Hashanah, which this year began at sundown on September 18, commemorates the “birthday of the world” and is also considered to be the time when God first created Adam and Eve. It marks the start of the Jewish New Year (Leviticus 23:23-31).
Rosh Hashanah, which means “head of the year,” is a subdued and contemplative holiday–a time of rejoicing and of serious introspection, a time to celebrate the completion of another year while also taking stock of one’s life. Jews greet one another with the words “Shanah Tovah,” meaning “good year” in Hebrew. The new year is ushered in with the blowing of the shofar or ram’s horn. Rabbi Eytah Yammer in Birmingham speaks about the blowing of the shofar, “I feel as if I’m breathing God’s breath when I’m blowing a shofar. It’s the visceral trumpeting of my soul.” Another rabbi describes the blowing of the shofar as a spiritual wakeup call: “Awake to a new year! Awake to repentance! Awake to community! Awake to holiness!” For some rabbis, the blowing of the shofar this year will be “both a call for justice and a call to listen to the pain of the world.”
Special foods are eaten during Rosh Hashanah as families and friends gather for festive meals. Apples are dipped in honey to symbolize the wish for a sweet new year to come. Pomegranate fruit may be eaten as people wish for blessings as plentiful as the seeds of a pomegranate. Round challah bread baked with raisins is also a popular dish.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews may be seen praying near a body of water performing the “Tashlich” or “casting off” ceremony. Breadcrumbs or pieces of bread are tossed into the water to symbolize the “casting off” of sins. Just as the food is carried away by the water, so are the personal sins of the faithful. The practice was inspired by Micah 7:19, “God will take us back in love/God will cover up our iniquities/God will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
Yom Kippur is the most solemn of the High Holy Days. The holy day begins this year at sunset on September 27 and ends at sunset on September 28. The origin of Yom Kippur traces back to the story of Moses and the people after the exodus. On one occasion Moses found the people worshipping a golden calf. Shocked by their infidelity, Moses shattered the stone tablets containing God’s commandments, and the Israelites begged to atone for their apostasy (Exodus 32:1-35). God forgave them on the 10th day of Tishrei, the day that would become known as Yom Kippur. On this “Day of Atonement,” Jewish families around the world fast for an entire day. Most of the day is spent at the synagogue in prayer, beginning with the evening “Kol Nidre” prayer service and concluding with the “Neilah” or the “Closing of the Gates” and the final piercing blast of the shofar.
In his Entering the High Holy Days, Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer speaks about how Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur underscore the human need to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. It is a time for examination of our flawed nature as human beings and the universal need for repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Rabbi Hammer shares the advice of the sages who encouraged every person to carry two notes in his or her pockets. On one would be the words, “For my sake the world was created.” On the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” When we feel our lives lack meaning, we look at the first. When we become too self-important, we look at the second.
The rabbi stresses that the High Holy Days are all about choice. Human beings are not destined for sin and evil. We always have the possibility of choosing the path of life. No matter what we have been, if we can come to terms with our limitations and recognize our faults, we can change and become the people God desires us to be.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are yearly opportunities for all spiritual seekers to establish a fresh new direction and reality in life. God does not allow our past to determine our future. These are important spiritual truths for both Jew and Christian alike.
When I participated in the Jewish rituals with my Benedictine ears, I often heard the spiritual themes of the High Holy Days resonate with some of those in the Holy Rule. Perhaps the monastery bells serve as shofars:
- Up with us then at long last, ‘Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep.’
- Run while you have the light of life, that the darkness of death not overtake you.’
- What can be sweeter to us than this voice of our Lord inviting us?
- Indeed, the Lord assures us in his love: ‘I do not wish the death of the sinner, but that she turn back to me and live.’
These days as my Jewish friends and their communities celebrate the High Holy Days, I pray for their faithfulness to the covenant and I wish them “Shanah Tovah u’Metukah,” a good and sweet new year!
By Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB
Image Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto