“It is early this year.” “It is late this year.” This is probably the most common refrain when we begin to talk about Rosh Hashanah. Being Jews, we see time not just as a straight line but as a spiral. The very name ”head of the year” links us to a new cycle; we begin a new year.
We have other New Years. Nisan begins the counting of the months. (It is the first month of the calendar), Ellul begins the modern financial year and Shevat is the New Year for trees.
Other descriptions of the day refer to the sounding of the Shofar and the Day of Judgement.
Rosh Hashanah always occurs on the first day of Tishri. We can set our calendars by it. In Vayikra and Bamidbar the text calls it the first day of the seventh month when the shofar is sounded.
It is not mentioned in the Torah. The name appears in the Mishna around 200CE but the holiday was almost certainly a feature of first Temple times. It is described as “the birthday of the world”. In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy we declare:
Hayom harat olam – today is the day of the world’s creation
What is Rosh Hashanah all about? It is a time to reflect and consider that each of us is judged on what has been done in the previous year. We all make mistakes and display our human frailties, but we are able to take stock and repair injustices, harm and hurt. We do this not just privately but publicly as part of the community.
What memories do we carry with us from childhood? Is it honey, apples and pomegranates on the table at home? (By the way if you are Sephardi there may be dates and figs and even the head of a fish. There is actually a Rosh Hashanah Seder)
Do you recall going to Shul and seeing other families all on their way to their own synagogues? For me, I recall the smell of autumn with the leaves changing, horse chestnuts falling from the trees and meeting up with family and friends for a meal.
The sound of the Shofar is a core part of the day, but the most emotional experience is the coming together of the community as we sing together and out loud:
Remember us that we may live
And in the Musaf service as a part of the Unetaneh Tokef recitation:
Be-rosh Ha-Shanah yika-teivum
U-v’Yom Tzon Kippur yei-ha-teimun
On Rosh Hashanah it is written
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed
And then in the final verses of the Avinu Malkeinu:
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּחָנֵּֽנוּ וַעֲנֵֽנוּכִּי אֵין בָּֽנוּ מַעֲשִׂים עֲשֵׂה עִמָּֽנוּ צְדָקָה וָחֶֽסֶ וְהוֹשִׁיעֵֽנוּ
Avinu malkeinu, honeinu va’aneinu, kee ein banu maasim.
Asei eemanu,tzedakah v’hesed, v’hoshee-einu
Avinu Malkeinu answer us though we have no deeds to plead our cause,
Save us with mercy and loving kindness.
This year we will be in isolation and not gathered together as a community. However, the sounds of these verses and the ability to call them out aloud can be the glue that holds us together. Hopefully, next year, we can all be together once again.