At the once-monthly Shabbat service for little ones I attend with my daughter, we always sing a song with the lyrics “I’ve got that Shabbat feeling up in my rosh (Hebrew for head).” The kids pat their heads as they sing “up in my rosh to stay-ay-ay.” It shouldn’t have been a surprise when my daughter asked if we were celebrating a “holiday of heads” when we started talking about Rosh Hashanah at home.
Literally, Rosh Hashanah means “head of the year.” In English, we usually call it the “Jewish New Year.” Interestingly, it begins on the first day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar—perhaps as an echo of Shabbat, the seventh day on which we rest in memory of God’s resting after the six days of creation. In fact, Leviticus tells us “In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, there shall be a solemn rest for you, a sacred convocation commemorated with the blast of the ram’s horn. You shall not work at any of your ordinary labor” (Lev 23:23-25).
The rabbis of the Talmud tell us what we are to work at—our extraordinary labor: “One is judged on Rosh Hashanah and one’s doom is sealed on Yom Kippur. . . Four things cross out the doom of a person: righteousness expressed through gifts of charity; prayerful supplication; change of name; and change of conduct.” (Rosh Hashanah 16b as quoted in Seasons of Our Joy).
On this first (and second) day of the seventh month, we hear the sound of the shofar (the “blast of the ram’s horn” mentioned above). A peculiar sound in a very specific, percussive order. That curious noise wakes us from our “ordinary labor.” It interrupts the flow of our workaday thoughts, and reminds us that this is no ordinary time.
Unlike the secular New Year that leads us to make resolutions (often to improve our bodies), the Jewish New Year asks us to look back upon our last year with a critical eye. It insists that we hold ourselves accountable, and look for ways to improve our souls—charity, prayer, change of conduct (in some cases, the rabbis seemed to think a full-on change of identity might be necessary!). A holiday of heads, indeed. Heads, hearts and souls.
This is uncomfortable work, this extraordinary labor of ours. The Talmud tells us that three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah. “One for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for those in between.” The righteous will be inscribed in the Book of Life, the wicked, the Book of Death, and everyone else’s judgment will be suspended until Yom Kippur. Surely 99.9 percent of us are in that third category. It can be difficult to sit with the reality of one’s own imperfection. Rosh Hashanah asks—demands even—that we do just that: we may not shrink from nor dismiss our past bad behavior.
Even in the midst of the divine accusation of imperfection, there is hope and joy. Together as a community, Jewish people publicly declare our sins, a literal alphabet of misdeeds. And together we commit to improving ourselves and our world. There is something sacred in the communal nature of this accounting of sins—the discomfort an individual feels in sitting with her own sins is ever-so-slightly diminished when it is shared with every other member of the community. We are alone together in our sins of the past year and together together in our shared hopes for the next one. And, knowing that as a community, we are more than the sum of our parts, there is hope that the next year will be better than the last.
The foods associated with the holiday point toward the hope and joy in this new year. Our braided challah bread is remade in round loaves and we make a point to eat apples with honey. The roundness of the apples and challah represent the fullness we wish for the coming year. The sweetness of the honey is symbolic of the sweet simchot (joys) we hope to receive (and bestow).
As Rosh Hashanah quickly approaches (and Yom Kippur on its heels, of which I’ll write more next week), I look forward to hearing the shofar through my daughters’ three-year-old ears and to tasting, with her joy and wonder, the sweet round goodness of the coming year. On this holiday of heads (a “challah-day” as she would call it), I will pray for the patience and the wisdom to recognize and forgive in myself and others the imperfections that come with being human. And with the congregation that is the human race I will not commit to perfection, since even God knows that that is impossible for us. No, I—we—will commit to working at being better next year: a little more patient, a little slower to anger, a little less defensive, a little more empathetic, a little more open, a little more curious, a little less judgmental, and a little more.
All of those little mores can add up to a lot in 5776. May it be a good year for all of us.
Rosh Hashanah begins on the evening of Sunday September 13 and ends on the evening of Tuesday September 15. The Simon Family JCC will be closed Monday, September 14 in observance.
If you are looking for companions on your Jewish journey, or just want to learn more, the Simon Family JCC is here to help. Learn more about Jewish Life and Learning at the JCC.
Tracie Guy-Decker is a freelance writer and artist. She and her husband, a Navy Chief, and their three-year-old daughter share their home with a poorly behaved dog and a six-toed cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.