Rosh HaShanah 2020: A Guide for the Perplexed

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Yoram Ettinger is a former Israeli Ambassador to the United State of America.

The evening of September 18, 2020 will begin the 5781st Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah). Here are nine things to remember:

1. Annual reminder. The Hebrew word Rosh (ראש) means “head/beginning,” and Hashanah (השנה) means “the year.” The root of the Hebrew word Shanah is both “repeat” and “change.” It constitutes an annual reminder of the need to pursue enhanced behavior: a life-long venture. It is conducted by a repeated study of moral values, while learning from experience by avoiding past errors and enhancing/changing one’s behavior. Rosh Hashanah ushers in the Ten Days of Repentance, which are concluded on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

2. Humility. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the sixth day of Creation, when the first human being, Adam, was created. Adam is the Hebrew word for a human being (אדם), which is derived from the Hebrew word for “soil” (אדמה). Moreover, the Hebrew letter ה is an abbreviation of God, the Creator. Thus, the date of the Jewish New Year highlights the centrality of the soil — a metaphor for humility — in human life.

3. Genesis. The Hebrew letters of Rosh (ראש) constitute the root of the Hebrew word for Genesis, pronounced “Be’re’sheet” (בראשית), which is the first word in the Book of Genesis. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei. Tishrei means beginning genesis in ancient Akkadian. The Hebrew letters of Tishrei (תשרי) are included in the spelling of genesis (בראשית). Furthermore, the Hebrew spelling of genesis (בראשית) includes the first two letters in the Hebrew alphabet (אב), the middle letter (י) and the last three letters (רשת) — representing the totality and wholesomeness of the Creation.

4.The Shofar (ritual ram’s horn). Rosh Hashanah is announced and celebrated in a humble and determined manner, by the blowing of the shofar. The sound of the shofar used to alert people to physical threats (e.g. military assaults). On Rosh Hashanah, it alarms people to spiritual threats, while paving the potential road to salvation. It serves as a wake-up call to the necessity of cleansing one’s behavior.

5. The Jubilee. In ancient times, the blowing of the shofar was employed to announce the (50th) year of the Jubilee — the Biblical role model of liberty. The Hebrew word for Jubilee is Yovel (יובל), a synonym for shofar. The Jubilee inspired the US Founding Fathers’ concept of liberty as inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). It also inspired the US anti-slavery, abolitionist movement.

6. Enhanced behavior. The Hebrew spelling for shofar — שופר — is a derivative of the verb “to enhance,” שפר, enticing people to persist in the unending, uphill voyage of behavioral improvement.

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