The Ouroboros Year

The autumn Jewish holidays will end this week with the days of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The soul searching that began during the month of Elul will culminate in the joyous abandon of Simchat Torah. 

The seven day festival of Sukkot ends today (Sunday October 20). As the sun sets this evening we mark the beginning of Shemini Atzeret. Literally, the name means stopping on the 8th day. While Shemini Atzeret has no customs of it’s own, it is, nevertheless a holy day. It is a day for dwelling with G-d. You know how when someone you love comes to visit? Sometimes when it’s time for them to leave you are having such a wonderful time and you don’t want them to go. So, you ask them to stay for another day. That’s Shemini Atzeret. We have had this month almost two month time of introspection and deepening our relationship with G-d. Now it’s time to leave. But G-d wants to spend one more day with us before sending us back to our ordinary lives. So, we spend this day with G-d. Just dwelling. In relationship. Deepening. 

Immediately as the sun begins to set on Shemini Atzeret we begin the final of the autumn holidays- Simchat Torah. This is a day of joy and rejoicing in the Torah. The Jewish scriptures, the five books of Moses, are central to our daily lives. We read the complete Torah each year- a new portion each week. We  study the weekly portion, read it aloud in synagogue services, and apply what we learn to our lives. Simchat Torah marks the end of the cycle. We read the end of Deuteronomy 34 and immediately begin again with Genesis 1. By looping from the end to the beginning we remember that the Torah is a cycle- it has no beginning or ending. The festival is also marked with dancing and parading with Torah scrolls. 

From the 1st of Elul until the sun sets on Simchat Torah, we have spent 52 days with G-d. For the past 52 days we have looked inside ourselves, questioned our motives, renewed our relationships, and embarked on a new year of Torah study. May the new year of 5780 be a reflection of the work from the past 52 days.

 

The Symbolism of Rosh Hashanah

Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh HaShanah. Known as the Jewish new year, the words literally translate to “head of the year.” Tonight we will flip our Hebrew calendars from 5779 to 5780. As we celebrate this holiday we undertake a number of symbolic rituals, prayers, and foods. 

Head of the Year

New moon. New month. New year. Rosh HaShanah is all this and more. The significance of the name “head of the year” is not without meaning. Like the head of our body, the head of the year directs everything else. Our year is determined by Rosh HaShanah. If we have a healthy and symbolic head of the year, the remainder of the year will fall into place. If, on the other hand, we don’t then we risk the remainder of the year not being up to where we want it to be. 

Crowning G-d King

During the Rosh HaShanah liturgy we hear about and pray for the coming messianic age. It doesn’t matter whether you view this as a time of a literal messiah or an age of perfection. We all yearn for the time when creation and humanity will be in harmony. We view Rosh HaShanah as a time to crown G-d as king. It is a time when our hope in the goodness of humanity is restored. 

Creation of Adam & Eve

Rosh HaShanah has been said to be the birthday of the world- the day of creation. In reality, the earth was created six days ago, and humans were created on this day. Why the distinction? The creation of earth is wonderful and nice, but it doesn’t mean much if there are no people here to enjoy it. The Divine- in all glory- created man and woman in it’s image. With the creation of humanity we find meaning in the creation of the earth. 

Apples & Honey

One of the traditions related to Rosh HaShanah is to eat apples dipped in honey. The reason behind this is to set the intention for a good sweet new year. This is also the reason our challah is raisin studded for the holiday. Lots of sweet fruits are eaten to bring in a sweet new year. 

Tashlich

On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah tashlich is observed. This ritual is performed by going to a body of water and throwing our “sins” away as we toss bread crumbs into the water. This is a symbolic ritual only. We are not literally throwing our sins away, and atonement does not come from the ritual. The symbolic act takes place through reading passages from Psalms and the prophet Micah (remembering that G-d will cast our sins into the depths of the sea) and tossing the bread as a symbol of our sins. This is one of my favorite Rosh HaShanah rituals. You can read more about it here

Shofar

The central commandment of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the Shofar blowing. If you can’t make it to services or don’t want to participate in any other rituals, this is the one to do. Hearing the blast of the ram’s horn is rather haunting. It is a shout of jubilation, a cry out to G-d, and a war cry. Despite all it’s usages, the sound is haunting. It stirs something deep within the soul. You feel it in your kishkes. The reasoning behind the command for a shofar is unclear (you can read about it here), but to be sure, this is the one thing you don’t want to miss. Want to hear it yourself? Take a listen below.