Jewish New Year celebration is marked by self-reflection

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At sundown on Sunday evening, Oct. 2, 100 shofar blasts will mark the arrival of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The shofar is a hollow ram’s horn, open at both ends, that when blown produces a startling, piercing cry. The Jewish people have relied upon the shofar to observe Jewish festivals and other significant days for thousands of years.

Rosh Hashanah, which translates from Hebrew as “head of the year,” is a time for Jews to come together and seek spiritual renewal and connection in community. The Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center will host services to will bring together members of the Island’s Jewish community.

“Rosh Hashanah is a time to gather with family and friends,” Lori Sue Herman, Hebrew Center educational director, said. “It builds memories and identity.”

The holiday spans two evenings and two days. It is the beginning of the new year and the Jewish month of Tishrei. This year Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown on Sunday, Oct. 2, and ends the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 4. The Jewish calendar follows the natural cycle of the moon, and this year the new year falls shortly after the fall equinox. It comes just in time to bid farewell to the extroverted days of summer and to welcome the introspective days of autumn.

The 100 shofar blasts that will be sounded over the course of the holiday are intended to startle, to unsettle. They are meant to shake people up and challenge them to pay attention, to dip below the surface of their everyday lives in order to take a spiritual accounting of themselves and their community.

According to Jewish tradition, each year Jews are given an opportunity to ask God’s forgiveness for all of the ways they have hurt themselves and others. But this is not just a matter between the person and God: Judaism requires action. In order for true forgiveness to occur, Jews must first reach out to those they have pained and seek to heal each individual relationship. Only then will God be ready to listen.

Elul, the Jewish month that leads up to Rosh Hashanah, is a time designated for self-reflection and preparation, a time to begin the process of seeking forgiveness. It also arrives with its own daily shofar blast, lest one forget the approaching holidays.

Following traditional Jewish belief, God decrees each year who will live and who will die — a decision God makes based on a person’s actions over the past year. This decree occurs on Rosh Hashanah, but it is not until Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 10 days later, that God inscribes names in the Book of Life and fates are sealed.

These 10 days that start with Rosh Hashanah are known as the Yamim Noraim, “the Days of Awe” or the Days of Teshuvah. Teshuvah is literally translated as “returning.” During this holy time, people put extra energy into bringing awareness and insight to their broken and disconnected pieces in order to return to themselves. They hold themselves accountable for their actions and increase petitions of forgiveness.

Rob Herman, the vice president of the Hebrew Center, shares his own practice: “Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I ask all who are close to me, friends, family, co-workers, to give me the opportunity to do better next year, by asking forgiveness. These holidays are always a little scary and at times difficult, but that is what makes the Days of Awe significant.”

After Monday’s service, the community will head to Owen Little Park to participate in the ritual of Tashlich, or “casting off.” People will throw symbolic pieces of bread into the water. It is “symbolic and significant, the throwing away of past sins, of errors in judgment, of acts you regret,” Mr. Herman said.

Even with this challenging, soulful work, Rosh Hashanah is decidedly a holiday of celebration. Inside and out of the synagogue, people celebrate together with festive meals. They eat symbolic foods to honor the holiday: round foods such as black-eyed peas and round challah to represent the cyclical nature of the Jewish year; sweet foods, for example apples dipped in honey and honey cake to express their wishes for a sweet year, and abundant foods like pomegranates with hundreds of seeds, to symbolize their hopes for an abundant and nourishing year.

In Judaism, the work of celebration is done in community. “It’s not often that we assemble as a large Jewish community,” Ms. Herman said. “It’s inspiring. Kids lead the Torah procession, which is very special. They stand at the ark at the time the Torah scrolls are taken out, and it’s very moving.”

Even for the young, the opportunity for self-reflection and connection to Jewish roots is not missed. The Hebrew Center hosts a children’s Rosh Hashanah service geared toward third to seventh graders, which includes discussions about the importance of forgiveness, kindness, and other themes of the holiday.

Rosh Hashanah services this year will be on Sunday, Oct. 2, from 5:30 to 6:45 pm; Monday, Oct. 3, and Tuesday, Oct. 4, from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm, with a concurrent children’s service on Monday from 10:15 to 11:30 am.

For a full schedule of services and to reserve seats, call 508-693-0745 or visit mvhc.us. The Hebrew Center asks that those planning to attend services to reserve seats beforehand.