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HIGH HOLY DAYS : Jews Celebrate the New Year

At sundown today, Jews will gather at synagogues throughout Los Angeles to wish each other L’Shanah Tova, marking the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year 5754. These gatherings will be followed by services Thursday at Reform temples and on Thursday and Friday at Conservative and Orthodox synagogues. Rosh Hashanah is a celebratory time, when new year greetings are exchanged and holiday fruits apples dipped in honey are served. Judaism intends this as an introspective period when Jews are asked to seek forgiveness from those they may have offended or wronged. The culmination is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, beginning this year at sundown Sept. 24. Observant Jews to abstain from food or drink during a 25-hour period, spending much of this most solemn Jewish holiday at a synagogue. One of the symbols of the Book of Life, a metaphor for God’s judgement and mercy. It is said the book is opened on Rosh Hashanah and closed on Yom Kippur, an annual rehearsal of the Day of Judgement. By “repentance, prayer and righteous living” one may avert God’s punishment, yet when all is said and done it is still in God’s hands.

Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah services include the retelling of the Genesis story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his son. The biblical account, in which God tells Abraham at the last minute that he spare his son and a ram is sacrificed instead, is presented as a model of faithfulness.

The Shofar

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The principal symbol of the High Holy Days is the shofar, or hollowed ram’s horn, which is sounded 100 times in traditional Rosh Hashanah services. One long blast on the shofar is sounded at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

The Medieval Jewish sage Maimonides called the blasts from the shofar moral wake up calls for Jews. Hebrew lore says that a horn from the ram that Abraham sacrificed became the first shofar. In ancient biblical times, it was sounded for great events such as the anointing of a new king, but today is almost entirely confined to the synagogue.

High Holy Days Calendar

Jewish cemeteries usually have memorial services on the Sunday of the 10-day holiday period, a practice stemming from Jews who in the past remembered the dead around the High Holy Days. Sunday, the fourth day of the High Holy Days, will also be a daytime fast period for devout Orthodox Jews. This is the Jewish New Year 5754. Though modern Jews acknowledge the scientific view that the Earth is billions of years old, the holiday tradition follows the reckoning of 12th Century Jewish scholars who said the world was created 3,761 years B.C., or before the Common Era.

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur services include the admonitions from the 58th chapter of Isaiah in which ritual and devotion are praised only if they are matched by right conduct and proper ethics. Jewish law forbids food or drink, sexual intercourse and full body bathing (associated with pleasure). Only custom forbids the wearing of leather, and explanations vary on reason. As for breaking the fast, some small synagogues provide juice after after the last service to refresh those going home. Often, friends will be invited over for a dinner to break the fast, but this is a more secular part of the holiday and not necessarily tradition-bound.

Researched and written by John Dart


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