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Originally published in the September, 1958 of Jewish Currents A READER, RUTH SIMON, WRITES:
Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur have always posed a difficult problem to Jews with a progressive, secular approach to Jewish living. These holidays have been essentially religious in ritual, centered in the synagogue and unrelated to any major historic event in the Jewish past (as is the case with Hanuka, Passover, etc.). As a result progressive, secular Jews have at times tended to adopt a hostile attitude to or at best to ignore these two holidays. Fortunately the hostile attitude has tended to disappear. But the ignoring largely remains. Has the religious garb of these holidays frightened us off and kept us from seeing the many deep human values that are imbedded in these traditions?All through the centuries Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur have been the most important days of the Jewish calendar. As a child I remember the awe in the atmosphere of those days, combined with the bustle of holiday preparation. I remember my father and grandfather getting up at dawn during the days of Slichos (the ten days of penitence between Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur) to attend prayers for forgiveness. Of course I had no clear idea of what that kind of forgiveness meant, but I was told that during that period I must “make up” with my friends with whom I had quarreled. Since my friends were told the same thing, it was easy for us to run across the courtyard, murmur quickly, “Lomir sich iberbeten,” and then giggle and run off together. Another poignant memory of those days was the lighting of the Yom Kippur candles. My mother would always cry as she said the prayers and seeing her tears, I would cry too, not knowing why. (Later, of course, I could find more than one reason for her fears, as well as for the weeping that went on in the synagogue during that time.) All that is past. For our children today, Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur are the days when they don’t have to go to school, and most of us adults are glad to have those days off from work. Many Jews attend religious services on these days who do not go on any other holiday. Many still fast on Yom Kippur. With some there is still a religious feeling, a sort of personal relationship with a deity, either from nostalgic reasons or consciously thought-through acceptance. Others say it is their way of identifying with the Jewish people (and usually the only way). Still others are influenced by social pressures in their community, especially in the suburban areas and small cities throughout the country. Here again we secular-minded Jews have a problem. What, if any positive, values can we find in these days of Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur for ourselves and to pass on to our children, which would be helpful to them both as Jews and as members of the community at large? Let us see what help history can give us, first of all, even though Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur are considered religious holidays purely. There have been many different New Years in the history of civilization. The early Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians celebrated New Year’s Day at the autumn equinox (September 21st). The day for Rosh Hashonah is the First of Tishri, which comes in the fall, some time in September. It is interesting to note that although we all know it as a religious holiday, the Encyclopedia Britannica calls it the “civil” new year. The Hebrew calendar begins with the month of Nissan (some time in March), which is described by the Encyclopedia as the “ecclesiastical” New Year (the religious elements in the spring festival). The ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated the New Year with the winter solstice (December 21st) until Julius Caesar postponed it to January. The early Christians took March 25 as the New Year until medieval times, when William the Conqueror in England ordered a return to January 1st. That was observed for a short while, then changed back by England and all other Christian countries to March 25th, until the Gregorian calendar finally established New Year’s Day as we know it on January 1st. That was accepted by England as late as 1752. We know that the Russian New Year (Greek Orthodox) is celebrated in a different day, and the Chinese also on another day. We can see how first the seasons and agricultural needs and, later, history influenced the choice of New Year dates. LOOKING BACK AT THE HISTORY OF THE JEWS we find the first day of Tishri described in the Bible as a day of solemn assembly when the people returned from Babylonia and rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. After many setbacks and attacks by enemy neighbors, they finally succeeded in building a protective wall around the city. When they finished this task, Ezra and Nehemiah — their spiritual and political leaders, who had personally supervised the work — called them together by the blowing the Shofar for a reading and rededication of the ancient commandments. These were not religious laws only but also rules of conduct governing man’s relation to man. After the joint effort in rebuilding the wall, there was good reason in coming together to hear again the precepts of justice and brotherhood which the prophets had talked about and to accept them as guides for future living. It seems to me that this can give us secular progressives a clue to the value to be found in Rosh Hashona, After something has been accomplished collectively, by the group, in accordance with its ultimate goals, it is fitting to come together to evaluate the tasks accomplished, and to outline plans for future working together, according to certain laws accepted by the group. The Bible calls Rosh Hashona a “Day of Remembrance.” In Festivals Jewish Festivals (Union of American of the Jewish Year, Theodor H. Caster elaborates on this: “The central theme of New Year’s Day is the power of Memory itself... [which] establishes the continuity of generations and rescues human life and effort from futility.... [Remembering] involves a chastening assessment [as well as] a comforting reassurance. New Year’s Day is at once a day of judgment and a new beginning.” (New York, 1953, pp. 108-109.) Such an evaluation can be acceptable and useful to us. It was this social memory which helped the Jewish people survive, with each generation interpreting the facts remembered according to the needs of the time. We can consider Rosh Hashona “a day of judgment” and a “chastening assessment” in the sense that we evaluate our activities as an individual within the group, in the light of our aims and goals, as well as the way in which these activities were carried out—giving equal emphasis to the means as well as to the ends. Rosh Hashona also marks “a new beginning.” It comes at the end of a summer’s vacation, and the beginning of a new year of activity — in the school, the community, the home. How, in the light of what was accomplished in the past year, shall we plan ahead for the coming year? Are we satisfied with the contacts we established with other children, other group activities? Have we learned enough about our people and other people? “In all other Jewish festivals, the spirit is one of exalted joyfulness. The exaltation of Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur, however, has no trace of joy, for these are profoundly serious days, with a feeling of the heavy moral responsibility which life puts upon us all,” writes Hayim Schauss in The Jewish Festivals (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Cincinnati, 7th printing, 1995, p112). As the Jewish people matured, the need was felt for a period during the year when each individual and the people as a whole engaged in a formal process of self-probing, self-evaluation, self-criticism. These holidays, then, incorporated a basic recognition of the intrinsic worth and importance of each individual human being, morally responsible and accountable for his deeds.