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Rosh Hashanah

The advent of the Jewish New Year is marked by the holiday of Rosh Hashana. This holiday, multi-faceted and complex, is a combination of solemnity and pleasant confidence, new clothes, sumptuous meals and holiday enjoyment. In reconciling these completely different emotions and aspects of the holiday, the rabbis relied on the sophistication and maturity of thought of the Jewish people. For all of Jewish history and life is really the ability to deal with somber events and a realistically uncertain future with aplomb, hope and a resilient spirit of optimism and confidence. As such, Rosh Hashana not only symbolizes the beginning of a new year on the Jewish calendar, but it also represents the beginning idea of Judaism and its tradition - the ability to reconcile opposite emotions and events and to remain faithful and upbeat about life and its possibilities. For it is Judaism that preaches, above all else, the sense of service to God and humankind that allows such an emotion of forward-looking confidence and serenity.

Rosh Hashana is seen as a day of judgment. It is this aspect of the holiday that lends it its somber tone. In the description of the Mishna, all human beings, individually and alone, file by the Heavenly Throne for judgment on the day of Rosh Hashana. Thus the somber mood of the prayers of the day and the magisterial quality of the melodies used by the leader of the services in reciting the special prayers of the day. The most exalted set of prayers recited in the Musaf (additional) service of Rosh Hashana consists of a trilogy of sections of Musaf. These are called Malchiyot (relating to the majesty of God), Zichronot (relating to the role of memory and history in positively influencing the ultimate decision and judgment in our heavenly trial) and Shofrot (relating to the sounding of the shofar, which is the unique ritual mitzva - commandment - of Rosh Hashana.) The text of the prayers used today in most synagogues in the world was composed by the great second century Babylonian Talmudic scholar and leader, Rabbi Abba Aricha, more commonly known in the Talmud as Rav - the rabbi/teacher. These prayers have withstood the test of time over nineteen centuries and the shedding of millions of Jewish tears.. They are unmatched for linguistic beauty, clarity of thought and nobility of soul. Even in translation to other languages from the original Hebrew, their holiness and shimmering light is readily detected.

The most dramatic moment of the holiday is the sounding of the shofar. The shofar is usually made of a ram's horn, though that of an ibyx or similar animal may also be used. There are three basic notes that are sounded from the shofar. One is a straight, flat note called tekiah. The second note consists of three wailing blasts (called shevarim) and the third note is a staccato sound of nine short blasts (called teruah). The wailing and staccato sounds are always preceded by the straight, flat sound. The flat sound indicates our mortality and limited life, much as a heart monitor does when it goes flat marking the end of life. The wailing and staccato sounds mark the turbulence of our lives, our strivings, ambitions and goals, while we are alive. The flat sound therefore precedes and succeeds the wailing and staccato sounds, for they symbolize our state of existence before our birth and after our passing. The Biblical injunction of sounding the shofar is discharged by sounding thirty blasts from the shofar. However it is ancient Jewish custom to sound one hundred blasts from the shofar. The shofar - ram's horn - is inextricably bound to the story of Isaac being bound by his father Abraham on God's altar and to the ram that was sacrificed in his stead. Jewish legend metaphorically stated that one of the horns of that ram was sounded on Sinai when Israel received God's Torah and that the second horn of that ram will be sounded to introduce the Messianic Era. So, again, we see Rosh Hashana as encompassing past, present and future, in both solemnity and joy.

Shabat Shalom and Shana Tova

Berel Wein

Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Berel Wein and Project Genesis, Inc.



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