It’s Rosh Hashanah! Wake Up!

Each Rosh Hashanah Jews participate in a most fascinating and perhaps unusual act; the very public (and very loud) blowing of a ram’s horn. The shofar is blown every day during the month of Elul (except on Shabbat), then on Rosh Hashanah itself and finally at the end of Yom Kippur. What are the origins of this strange practice?

The Torah describes many different instances on which the shofar was to be blown. In the book of Vayikra, we are told that the shofar was used to announce the beginning of festivals, whilst the book of BaMidbar tells us that the sound of the shofar signalled the start of a war. Finally, Isaiah tells us that the sound of the shofar will usher in the age of redemption. The Torah offers us still other examples of when the shofar is to be sounded. Yet, what links all these occasions together?

Rabbi Nissan Mindel, recounts the following parable;

A long time ago, before the introduction of the fire brigade and when most houses were built of wood, a small fire could quickly spread leading to the destruction of an entire village. The ensure that this did not happen, tall watchtowers were erected and, when a fire broke out, they would sound an alarm which signalled to all the townspeople to stop whatever they were doing to help put out the fire.

One day a boy visited such a village for the first time. He stopped to rest at a nearby inn when suddenly he heard the sound of a trumpet. Confused, he asked the innkeeper what it meant. The innkeeper explained that, “Whenever we have a fire we sound a trumpet, and the fire is quickly put out”.

The boy left the inn in wonder and amazement; “A trumpet that can put out fires!” he thought to himself, “How wonderful! I must go and buy one for my village”.

The boy returned home, a trumpet in hand, and called all the villagers together. Excitedly he explained, “We no longer need to be afraid of fire. Just watch me, and see how quickly I will put out a fire!” The boy then went to the nearest house and set fire to its straw roof. As the fire spread the villagers looked alarmed but the boy said, “Do not be afraid. When I blow this trumpet the fire will be extinguished!” The villagers watched as the boy raised the trumpet to his lips and blew. A loud sound emitted from the trumpet but the fire continued to burn and soon the whole village was up in flames.

The villagers, angry with the boys foolishness, yelled at him. “You fool,” they cried. “Did you think that the mere blowing of the trumpet will put the fire out? It is only the call of an alarm, to wake up the people, if they are asleep, or to break them away from their business and work, and send them to help put out the fire!”

We all need a wake-up call every now and again; something that grabs our attention and help us to realise we need to take action to change a situation. In our lives and the lives of our families we are constantly balancing so many activities, thoughts and commitments that is is easy to lose track of our priorities. The Torah calls Rosh Hashanah ‘Yom Teruah’ – ‘the day of shouting’. The medieval philosopher Maimonides says that it is as if the shofar is saying to each of us, “Awake, you sleepers from your sleep. Arouse you slumberers from your slumber and ponder your deeds”.

The Yom Noraim and the sound of the shofar are a call to us to wake-up, step away from the distractions of everyday life and to refocus on the things that matter most to us. My wife, Robin and my daughters, Aviva and Ora, join me in wishing you and your family SHANA TOVA UMETUKAH – a good and sweet year.

Originally published in New London Synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah Magazine 2016

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What’s New about Rosh Hashanah?

Another year has come and gone and soon we will be celebrating the festival of Rosh Hashanah, a day which marks the start of the Jewish New Year. But as we prepare to repeat this annual event, I am led to question exactly what is so ‘new’ about Jewish New Year? Is it simply the marking of the start of another calendar year? How are we supposed to feel and think on Rosh Hashanah when the coming of a new year can feel so old and familiar?

The word ‘new’ is not actually a part of the Hebrew name for Rosh Hashanah, which can most accurately be translated as ‘Head of the Year’. This name is similar to the monthly festival of Rosh Chodesh which translates as ‘Head of the Month’. Rosh Chodesh is the marking of the birth of a new moon and indeed, the word chodesh itself comes from the root chadash, which means new. Interestingly, Rosh Hashanah is also a Rosh Chodesh, however we do little to mark it as such. For example, Rosh Chodesh Tishrei is the only month where the custom of Shabbat Mevarekhim – the public declaration announcing the start date of the new month – is ignored. In fact, Rosh Chodesh is barely mentioned during any of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy at all.

So why this absence of chadash in the Jewish New Year? Many explanations and interpretations have been put forward, and here I will add my own thoughts. Rather than a time of ‘newness’, Rosh Hashanah is a moment for renewal, transition and continuation. It is the point in the year where we pause and take stock of our lives, our values and passions and think about how we would like to take these things forward over the next twelve months. In this sense Rosh Hashanah is not about newness at all, but about beginning again.

This idea is beautifully illustrated in the Talmud (Niddah 30b), which tells us that when a child is in the womb they are taught the entire Torah. However, at the moment that child is born, an angel touches the baby on the mouth which causes that child to forget all that was learnt. A reason for this is that the study of Torah should always feel familiar, a relearning of that which is already known. On Rosh Hashanah we learn from the past so that we can live a more fruitful and enjoyable future.

As Head of Youth, I look forward to building on the success of the previous year, and working together to create an even stronger future. My wife, Robin and my daughter, Aviva, join me in wishing you and your family SHANA TOVA UMETUKAH – “[a] good and sweet year”, full of hope and renewal.

Originally published in New London Synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah Magazine 2015