Happy New Year!! You don’t belong to a temple or a synagogue and there is no local “First Night” celebration but you do identify with Judaism. What should you do?


We assume that you have read the introduction to this section and have followed up in books or on-line learning about Rosh Hashanah, its history, traditions, customs, themes, etc. An additional recommended book is “Days of Awe” by S.Y. Agnon.


Rosh Hashanah is acknowledged as the time to celebrate the new year but, in addition, the period from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur is often referred to as the “Days of Awe” when Jews review their actions for the previous year, do a certain amount of introspection, consider to what extent they have not lived up to their ideals and atone for their misdeeds.  


The Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah include Sarah giving birth to Isaac and demanding the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael and the request that Abraham sacrifice Isaac.  The haftorahs are the birth of Samuel from the Book of Judges and a selection from Jeremiah about his vision of the deliverance of the people of Israel from exile.


Tradition also says that there is the Book of Death for the wicked and the Book of Life for the righteous but all the rest can get God to write them into the Book of Life for the following year by seeking repentance during this period before Yom Kippur.


In the Talmud, Kiddushin 40a-b, Rabbi Elazar the son of Simon said: “Inasmuch as the world is judged in accordance with the majority of its deeds, and the individual is judged in accordance with the majority of his deeds, if he performs one mitzvah, happy is he, for he has tipped his scales and the scales of the world toward merit. If he commits one sin, woe unto him, for he has tipped the scales toward sinfulness for himself and for the world.”


Michael Strassfeld says in Jewish Holidays, page 104 “On Yom Kippur, we can achieve atonement for sins between God and us, but for sins between us and our fellow humans, Yom Kippur offers no atonement.  For those sins, we must ask forgiveness from all the people we have wronged.  We must try to repair the damage and pain we have caused during the past year.  .. (T)his is a good time for group introspection as a means of examining how members of a group relate to each other.  Communities of all kinds – havurot, synagogues, even families, should be especially concerned with ways to effect reconciliations among members for hurts large and small.”


The traditions of Rosh Hashanah include: the blowing of the shofar which seems not to have a clear derivation; the dipping of the apples in honey to symbolize the hope for a sweet year; and Tashlikh, the custom of going to a flowing body of water and symbolically casting away sins by throwing bread crumbs into the water.


You can, of course, rely on traditional customs or you can create your own or do both. In our havurah, one year we combined the birth stories with the theme of the creation of the world by having a birthday cake. For many years thereafter, we held a sunrise service at Plum Island in Newburyport, Massachusetts, incorporating readings or music, some from Jewish sources along with others such as “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles and “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens. 


What would you incorporate into your celebration? What captures your imagination as you read about the new year and the creation of the world, the birth of Isaac, the birth of Samuel, the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, the sacrifice of Isaac and Jeremiah’s vision about the return of the Israelites from exile? What relevance do any of these stories have for you?


We encourage you to create a meaningful Rosh Hashanah service.  Please contact us if you would like advice and suggestions and/or e-mail us a description of the observance so we can post it as a model for others.







©CJA 2006




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