The New Year—Rosh Hashanah
The fall (autumn) holidays begin with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, which in Hebrew means “head of the year” (the Jewish New Year). It is also known as the Feast of Trumpets and Day of the Blowing (Yom HaTruah). The shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown all over the Land on this day, which marks the beginning of the holiest time of year on the Jewish calendar. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), are called the Ten Days of Awe. These ten days are a time of introspection, a time of searching your soul, a time to make everything right between you and your God, as well as your fellow man. Secular New Year’s celebrations in the West are marked by partying, drinking, and merrymaking. In contrast, Rosh Hashanah is a much more solemn time, described by some as subdued joyousness. It is a time for solemn evaluation and inward scrutiny.
The Bible describes the month of Nisan as the first month of the year (usually around April), yet for 2,000 years, Jewish people have been celebrating the New Year at Rosh Hashanah, in the Hebrew month of Tishri (usually around September). Why is this? Arthur Waskow, in his book Seasons of Our Joy, describes it as: “…the month of early fall, of catching our breath after the hot dry winds of summer. Because it is the seventh month, it echoes the seventh day, the Shabbat [Sabbath] of rest and contemplation, of catching our breath after six days of hard work. So perhaps Rosh Hashanah is the new year for renewal. Like Shabbat, it is the time to focus our attention on ultimate spiritual truth. This is then the new year for learning how a human being can turn toward God.” I like that thought. As I hear the sounds of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah, I reflect on these thoughts and feel at one with the Jewish people.
Since living in Israel for more than 19 years, Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Awe have become a special time for me. I find myself examining my heart to see if there is anything I need to correct. Are there relationships that need mending? What is God speaking to me about? What do I need to concentrate on to become the woman that God has planned me to be? Many people write New Year’s resolutions on January 1. My experience with these resolutions is that they are quickly forgotten. However, the self-assessment that I make at Rosh Hashanah and in the days leading up to Yom Kippur are not so. God and I have met and it is a special appointment that I look forward to each year.
As with all Jewish holidays, there are special foods eaten on this day. The foods eaten on Rosh Hashanah are symbolic. Sweet foods are eaten, usually apples dipped in honey, to indicate the desire for a sweet year. Round foods are eaten to symbolize the cycle of the year, and there is always an abundance of food, symbolizing hope for fruitfulness and prosperity. Fish, cooked with the head left on, is often the main course, symbolizing the head of the year.
I hope that I have whetted your appetite to experience Rosh Hashanah for yourselves. If so, find time to search your heart, make things right with your fellow man, and celebrate with your friends and family. I greet you as my Israeli friends greet each other on this day L’shanah tovah tichatevu (May you be inscribed for a good year), a desire for our names to be written in the book of life.
The Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur
To most Jewish people, Yom Kippur is considered the most important day in the Jewish year. In fact, persons who observe little or nothing of their Jewish heritage year-round often attend the synagogue on this one day. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is holy to God as well. In Leviticus 23:26–32 we find, “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves…”
Three times in these verses, the children of Israel are commanded to deny themselves. The most common interpretation for this (in Israel) is to fast from food and water. It is a source of amazement to me that nearly the entire Jewish population of Israel does just that. Often in Christian circles, I have heard people say how hard it is to fast. When they say this, they are talking of fasting from food. I can tell you from experience that fasting from food for a day is easy compared to fasting from both food and water and all other liquids.
On Yom Kippur, the nation of Israel stops for 25 hours (from an hour before sundown to sundown the next day). The streets are empty, as everyone stays home and virtually no one drives a car anywhere, unless it is an absolute emergency. Children and teens take advantage of this fact and rollerblade, ride their bikes, and walk in the middle of the streets―the only day of the year when such a thing is even possible.
Every year, my husband, Tom, and I join with the house of Israel in this time of fasting, prayer, and self-assessment. As we contemplate and seek the Lord, He will often shine His light into our hearts, and suddenly we find things we need to repent of. Obviously, we should repent of our sins on a daily basis, but Yom Kippur is a special day of repentance, one God has chosen. We gather with friends and pray for Israel, repent of our sins, and seek the face of God for the coming year. It is not an easy day, but it is a good day, which we have set aside to join our hearts with the Jewish people.
I have said before that every Jewish holiday has food connected with it. You might wonder how a fast day could have special foods; however, in Israel even this is possible. Fasting is done from sundown to sundown. Just before the fast begins, a large meal is eaten, and as soon as the fast is completed, another meal is quickly prepared, for everyone is very hungry.
Sukkot―The Feast of Tabernacles
It has been over 25 years since Tom and I decided to celebrate the biblical holidays listed in Leviticus 23. We had been to Israel several times and felt a real drawing toward Israel and the Hebraic roots of our Christian faith. We were living in southwest Missouri, and while our actions seemed odd to some and radical to others, they seemed perfectly natural and right to us.
That first Sukkot was very special, and I remember it fondly. We had read in the Bible that the Children of Israel were to live in booths for seven days. We started researching and learned how to build our own sukkah (booth). Tom built the framework for the sukkah in our yard, as our neighbors tried to figure out why a childless couple was building what seemed to be a flimsy fort in their backyard! I excitedly scrounged for old blankets and sheets to form the three walls. Then we trimmed our hedges and trees for the branches to lie across the top. How proud we were of our very first sukkah.
It was October and very chilly as we sat in the sukkah that first evening. We were all bundled up as we recalled the stories of the Children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land. We rejoiced in God’s faithfulness and goodness to them and to us. I still remember the feeling of connection to the Bible and the Jewish people that we felt as we sat and ate in our booth. Feeling connected is an integral part of Sukkot. For thousands of years, Jewish people have been building booths and remembering that long-ago journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. There is a continuous thread of history and remembrance connecting those ancient people of the Bible and the Jewish people of today.
In our Missouri neighborhood, I daresay we were the only ones with a sukkah. Now, living in Jerusalem, I can see booths (sukkot) everywhere during the Feast of Tabernacles. They are on balconies, roofs, in gardens, hotels, and even on the crowded sidewalks. I count it a privilege to share in these times of joyous celebration with my Jewish friends and neighbors. And make no mistake, Sukkot is a joyous time. It is commanded in the book of Leviticus to be joyous during this holiday. It is a time of gathering with family and friends, of decorating our booths, and of joyous meals shared in the sukkah.
This year, as we sit in our sukkah, we will remember the mighty deeds God performed for His chosen people in the desert. But, we will also eagerly look forward to the day foretold by the prophet Zechariah, who said, “And the Lord will be King over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be the only one and His name the only one…Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths” (14:9, 16 NASB). So…let’s celebrate!
The Joy of Torah—Simchat Torah
Immediately following Sukkot, is a one-day celebration in which the annual Torah (Gen.–Deut.) reading cycle is completed with the last verses of Deuteronomy, and is immediately restarted with the first verses of Genesis. It is not a biblical feast, but one not to be missed, as the Jewish people rejoice over the Word of God.
On this special day, you can walk into a synagogue anywhere in the world and find a joyous scene. All the scrolls of the Torah are taken from the ark, an ornate cabinet, and carried in procession around the synagogue seven times. The entire congregation is involved: men, women, and children. During the procession, happy songs of praise are sung, and congregants dance with the scrolls while children wave Torah-decorated flags. This synagogue service is one of the happiest and most raucous of the entire year. The joyous procession usually continues outside into the streets surrounding the synagogue where observers typically get caught up in the merriment and join the dancing and singing.
It is in this celebrated Torah that we find God’s appointed feasts. If you have never celebrated these feasts, I suggest you consider reading Leviticus 23 and ask God if this is something He would like you to begin doing. There are many books written for Christians about these feasts. A chapter in our book, Israel and the Church: God’s Road Map, covers them in more detail. Don’t miss out on the celebration and all that God can teach us through these feasts. They will enrich your faith life.
By Rebecca J. Brimmer
Editor in Chief
Photo Credit: www.israelimages.com/Erez Ben Simon
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