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September 14, 2004 > Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Judaic 'Days of Awe'

Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Judaic 'Days of Awe'

by Reshma Yunus

Rosh Hashanah, popularly knows as the Jewish New Year, will begin on the evening of September 15th and will be celebrated by most reformed (liberal) congregations of the Jewish faith all day on September 16th and on both September 16th and 17th by orthodox members. In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah literally means, head of the year or first of the year.

Interestingly enough, Rosh Hashanah actually falls on the first day of the seventh month of the Jewish lunar calendar, Tishri. According to,, Judaism has several different "new years." The month of Nissan is actually the first month of the Judaic calendar and is considered the "new year' for the purpose of counting the reign of kings and months on the calendar; Elul 1 (in August) is the new year for the tithing of animals, Shevat 15 (in February) is the new year for trees (determining when first fruits can be eaten, etc.), and Tishri 1 (Rosh Hashanah) is the new year for years (

Rabbi Stephen Kaplan, who heads the Temple Beth Torah in Fremont on Paseo Padre, explained that in Judaism, this new year's day is not only a day of celebration to welcome the New Year as in some other faith and cultural traditions. Instead, Rabbi Kaplan explained, Rosh Hashanah begins a period of time to reflect on the past, present and the future, it is a time to "better oneself." Thus, Rosh Hashanah initiates a ten day period of introspection and repentance and ends with Yom Kippur (which means, "Day of Atonement" in Hebrew). These ten days are known as "Days of Awe" (High Holidays) or (Yamim Noraim in Hebrew) as they are to be spent in introspection, asking for forgiveness of transgressions and contemplating the sovereignty of God.

There are many special customs, prayers and traditions that are part of the observance of these holiest of Jewish holidays. An important aspect of these particular days, Rabbi Kaplan said, is that these are community holidays and attendance in a synagogue is imperative. The community of faith, as a whole, said the Rabbi, will ask for forgiveness in general terms. This protects an individual from embarrassment about having committed a particular sin. However, said Rabbi Kaplan, transgressions against individuals must be forgiven by the individual who was wronged -thus, the Days of Awe provide a perfect opportunity to make amends, mend hurts and begin anew not just with God but with humanity as a whole.

Another vital tradition of Rosh Hashanah is blowing of the ram's horn known as the Shofar. The Shofar is sounded for a total of 100 notes a day. The Shofar is one part of a tri-part ritual observance for Rosh Hashanah and is considered by some as a call to repentance. It also signifies redemption, according to one source, God stated to the Prophet Abraham, as he observed a ram free itself from a thicket, "In a similar manner are your children destined to be caught up in iniquities and entangled in troubles, but they will ultimately be redeemed through the horns of the ram (" The Shofar is to be blown by a person who is of sound moral and religious character. The sounding of the Shofar needs to be appropriately supervised as there are complex laws and requirements involved. It is finally sounded one last time on Yom Kippur.

Although, most of Rosh Hashanah is spent in the synagogue praying an extensive liturgy (public prescribed prayers) which focus on seeking forgiveness, there are lighter moments. Families will have festive meals before and after services and apples dipped in honey are eaten to signify a wish for a sweeter new year. Rabbi Kaplan said that his family and many others also have matzo ball soup (made of unleavened bread in chicken broth), Challah (egg bread made in a round shape to signify the cycle of the year) and Gefilte fish, a cake or ball of chopped up fish. Candles are lighted and many prayers and blessings are said throughout the day and evening

Jews believe that on Rosh Hashanah God enters into his "books" the fate of individuals for the coming year. However, the ten days allow individuals to change some of the potentially negative outcomes by seeking forgiveness and atoning for sins. Yom Kippur is the last day to change this judgment, and is considered one of the most important of Jewish holidays. It is a day to be spent fasting and attending synagogue services. No work is allowed and according to Jewish sources, the Talmud also has additional restrictions such as no washing and bathing, use of personal cosmetics (deodorant etc.), wearing leather shoes or engaging in physical intimacy. At the end of this day, Jews believe, God seals judgment for each person.

Services for Rosh Hashanah will begin September 15th at 8:00 p.m. at Temple Beth Torah. For further information about Rosh Hashanah, local services or Yom Kippur, please contact the Temple Beth Torah at 510-656-7141.

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