High Holidays

This Friday is the start of the Jewish High Holiday season. Over the coming three weeks there are three major festivals to be celebrated: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Unfortunately, this year they will take place during a three week national lockdown in Israel.

If you are new to Jerusalem, then the range of customs and traditions associated with these can be quite baffling. Below is something of a beginner’s guide on what you could (in normal times) expect.

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and celebrates the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve. This year it starts at sundown on Friday 18th and continues until the evening of the 20th. All work, including creative work, is forbidden during this time.  

One of the main observances at Rosh Hashanah is that everyone should hear the shofar. This is an instrument made from an animal’s horn, such as a ram’s horn. There is great skill attached to getting the right sound out of the shofar and much prestige for the Baal Tekiah (shofar blower) who masters it. Practice begins in the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah.

Drawing of a shofar and other Rosh Hashanah traditional items (Image taken from https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4644/jewish/Rosh-Hashanah.htm)

The sound of the shofar has several symbolic meanings. It is a ‘trumpeting’ celebration of God as the King of creation. It is also a calling to one’s own spirit to re-dedicate oneself to God. It is a requirement that the shofar is heard on every day of the holiday except if it falls on Shabbat.

There are many rules surrounding who may blow the shofar and how to ensure it meets the duty required by the Torah. For example, it does not count if someone only hears the echo of the shofar. For many people, hearing the shofar is the most special part of Rosh Hashanah.

Other traditions around Rosh Hashanah include special prayer services and festive meals. It is customary to eat sweet foods such as challah bread with raisins and apples, both dipped in honey to welcome in a sweet new year.

Pomegranates are also traditional as representing fertility and good deeds. An amazing fact is that a pomegranate has 613 seeds which corresponds to the number of Jewish mitzvot (duties or commandments).

Lockdown in Israel is due to start on Friday afternoon, several hours before Rosh Hashanah begins. One person I asked said ‘Everything will change. Only the prayers and mitzvot remain the same’. Lockdown measures include restricting the size of prayer groups and limiting indoor gatherings to 10 people and 20 outdoors.

If Rosh Hashanah is a joyful celebration of the New Year, then Yom Kippur which follows a week later, is a much more austere day. This is the Day of Atonement and is the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar.

Yom Kippur involves fasting from several hours before sunset on the first day (27 September this year) to after nightfall on the second day (28 September). During this time, people must avoid all food and drink, not wash themselves and not wear leather. The day is spent in prayer and reflection, and it is believed that this will purify someone from their sins.  

The custom is said to originate from when Moses was leading the Jews out of Egypt. Moses was instructed by God to spend 40 days on Mount Sinai learning the Torah. His followers miscalculated the time of his return, and thinking him dead, they started worshipping a golden calf. When Moses did return, he thought their behaviour sinful and asked God to forgive them. This became known as the Day of Atonement. Although it is a solemn day, it is normally followed by a feast when the fast is broken.

Finally, hot on the heels of Yom Kippur, comes the start of Sukkot five days later. ‘On Yom Kippur, everything comes to a standstill. On Sukkot, everything comes to life’, wrote the Jerusalem Post last year.

Sukkot runs for eight days and celebrates the gathering of the harvest and God’s protection of the Jews when they were sheltered from the sun on their walk across the Sinai desert to the Holy land.

The main requirement is for each household to make a temporary shelter called a ‘sukkah’ with a roof of palms and other foliage. All meals are to be eaten in the sukkah and the goal is to spend as much time there as possible. This results in restaurants and cafes constructing their own sukkahs for customers.

Sukkahs in Mea She’arim (Image from https://www.charismanews.com/world/52332-what-is-the-sukkot-and-what-does-it-mean)

It is not unusual to see sukkahs competing for space out on the pavement and this is quite a spectacle. There is a national week-long holiday and normally, a definite party spirit. You will also see people dashing around with palms which are needed to patch up the sukkah’s roof.  

Many of the apartment buildings in West Jerusalem are constructed so that the balconies are not directly above each other. This gives each household some access to the open sky, which meets the requirement for their sukkah. Some people even choose to sleep in them.  

It is meant to be good luck if it rains on sukkot as this is taken as a sign that the winter will be wet and provide a good harvest next year. It did rain last year during Sukkot, and I remember being equally impressed and shocked at the revelation that Israel has technology that can affect rainfall.  

After nearly three weeks of festivals, Sukkot normally ends with aplomb including singing and dancing on the eighth day. Lockdown will unfortunately require a more modest approach this year.

Best wishes to everyone that is celebrating!

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