Rosh Hashanah, observed this year on September 4, is a Jewish holiday somewhat familiar to non-Jews. Despite the fact that the name means “head of the year,” and that it is considered to represent the birthday of the world, it has little in common with secular “New Year” celebrations.
Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of a ten-day period of prayer, self-examination, and repentance called the Days of Awe, culminating with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This year even Islanders who are not Jewish were significantly affected by Rosh Hashanah, as it ended up falling on what would traditionally have been the first day of public school.
Jewish holidays jump around the Gregorian calendar because the Hebrew calendar is based on cycles of the moon, not the sun. A moon month is 29.5 days. A lunar year is 354 days, 12 days shy of a solar year. In order for holidays to continue to occur in the appropriate seasons, every two to three years a 13th month is added to the Jewish calendar, based on an esoteric formula in which there are seven “leap years” out of every 19. Although it sounds confusing, it has worked well for thousands of years.
At synagogue there are melodies and prayers unique to these “High Holidays,” and the blowing of one of the world’s oldest wind instruments — the shofar — made from a ram’s horn. According to the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, the shofar sound is a call to repentance. An ancient and haunting sound, it transports the listener back to where one can imagine standing in the desert at Mount Sinai as described in the Book of Exodus. Rosh Hashanah customs include baking challah in special round loaves, symbolizing the circular nature of the year and the seasons, and eating apples dipped in honey for a “sweet” new year.
On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, many Jews on the Vineyard join Rabbi Caryn Broitman at Owen Park to observe the ritual of “tashlich,” throwing bits of bread into a natural body of water as a symbolic casting off of sins.
Yom Kippur is a serious day, but not a sad one. Observant Jews fast and spend most of the day in synagogue. Many wear all white clothes, representing purity and innocence, as well as a reminder of human mortality, and the need for humility and repentance. The Hebrew word for repentance is “teshuvah,” which more accurately translates as “return.” It is a time when Jews try to actively turn away from past mistakes, make amends to God and to people they have harmed, and return to a life of mercy and justice.
Five days later comes the week-long harvest celebration of Sukkot. The Hebrew word sukkah means “hut” or “booth” and harkens back to the frail structures in which the Israelites lived during their forty years in the desert after leaving Egypt, and also the seasonal booths in which farmers later lived in their fields during harvest time. A sukkah must be temporary, have three sides, and a roof through which the stars are visible. It may be decorated with seasonal fruits and vegetables, flowers, posters, rugs, and artwork. Families and friends gather to share meals or even sleep there.
In the sukkah, an ancient ritual using four species of plants based on a passage from Leviticus is observed. The “lulav” is composed of branches of willow, palm, and myrtle. The fourth element is the “etrog,” a fragrant, brilliant yellow citron. With a special blessing, the lulav is shaken in all directions — north, south, east, west, up, and down. One lovely interpretation of the meaning of this ritual relates each plant to parts of the human being. The willow is the mouth, saying prayers. The etrog is the heart filled with wisdom and understanding. The palm is the spine of upright character, and the myrtle the eyes by which we learn and become enlightened. Sukkot at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center is also the time when the religious school children deliver all the food collected during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the Island Food Pantry. This year they delivered a record 128 bags of groceries.
The fall holidays close with Simchas Torah, translated as Rejoicing of the Torah, observed this year on Friday, September 27. The central text of Judaism is the Torah — the Five Books of Moses — handwritten in Hebrew on one continuous parchment scroll which is read bit by bit from start to finish each year. When the end of the scroll is reached, there is a huge celebration, not unlike a wedding, with music and dancing with the Torah. The entire scroll is unrolled around the room. The final verses describing the death of Moses are read, then the first verses of Genesis, and the scroll is rolled back to the beginning so the cycle can begin anew. For Jews, it is a joyous conclusion to a month of reflection, repentance, and return.
Michelle Gerhard Jasny is a well-known veterinarian whose office is in West Tisbury. Her column Visiting Vet appears regularly in The Times.