Opening the "Life and Culture" section of this morning’s paper, I see picturedf a golden braid of challah bread, one of the symbols used in the Jewish feast of Rosh Hashanah, coming up at the end of this week. Another illustration shows challah in the shape of a crown, sign of the hope that the coming year will be complete and unbroken by tragedy.
If you have Jewish friends, you might be wishing them Happy Holidays, because this is among the most important feasts of the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah is Hebrew for Head (Rosh) of the Year (Hashanah)—Jewish New Year.
This feast has long captured my interest, but this year I discovered I had a lot of questions about it. First, new year? Why in September, or when, exactly, is this celebrated? And, what is the origin of the feast? Is it found in the Bible? And, did Jesus celebrate it? If so, why don’t we?
Various cultures have seen fit to celebrate the year’s beginning at different times. For some it was the beginning of spring, the vernal equinox, or March 21. For the Chinese, it was the second new moon after the winter solstice, which would put it in late winter. The Romans began with the first day of spring, but then Julius Caesar added January and February to the calendar, and moved New Year’s Day to the first of January. Because Christianity developed in the Roman Empire, it took on the calendar of Rome.
In Leviticus 23:23-25 “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites: On the first day of the seventh month you shall keep a Sabbath rest, with a sacred assembly and with the trumpet blasts as a reminder, you shall then do no sort of work, and you shall offer an oblation to the LORD.’” The sliver of the new moon ushered in this solemn beginning of the year. This was a Sabbath, and it extended for ten more days of fasting and prayer.
For most of us, New Year’s Day has more secular appeal than religious. Traditions like the ball lowering at Times Square, sherry and shortbread in Scotland, partying, resolutions, all belong to a more worldly view of the year. Romans at the time of the early Church celebrated that January 1 New Year’s much as we do today, and Christians tried to avoid that date for their own new year’s celebrations. Christmas sometimes marked the new year, as it did the years of the common era, the years of the LORD. Sometimes it was March 25, the Annunciation, when Christ’s conception marked the new year. Meanwhile, the Church has assigned various feasts to January 1—the Circumcision of the Lord, and then, Mary, Mother of God, seeking to clothe this day in sacred meaning. But we do not really use this as a sacred celebration of the new year.
So when does the Church really begin the year? If you are in school or have kids, Labor Day signals a new school year, a fresh start. If the budget is your concern, or if you are a new pastor or principal, July 1 will mark a fiscal year. If it’s resolutions to do better, Lent might be the time you see for renewal.
But strictly speaking, the Church begins its year on the first Sunday of Advent, usually the Sunday after Thanksgiving, at the end of November. (And how apt that we would be thanking God for the past year even as we begin our new one.)
The cycle of readings in the Lectionary begins then. This year we will be starting Cycle A, with readings from Matthew. The missalettes, and maybe the hymnals, will be new. It begins a time of preparation for the birth of Christ, who has made all things new—the new Adam, the unblemished Lamb of sacrifice.
Just as the Church’s new year moves into the time of Advent, Jewish new year also moves directly into a time of atonement—10 days of reassessing one’s life, fasting, prayer, leading up to the Feast of Atonement, which has its own considerations.
Meanwhile, if you want to share the spirit of this feast of Rosh Hashanah as Jesus might have done, you can try some of the festive foods of the season. Pomegranates add jewel-like bursts of flavor to a salad or to a bowl of granola. A slice of challah is always a treat toasted with butter. Apples dipped in honey are also a festive food.
For me, the take-away from these thoughts on new year’s celebrations is that there are many times and ways to mark a new year. As people of faith, we can be inspired by the spirit of Rosh Hashanah to make our own celebration of a new year a solemn one. It should be a time to celebrate the majesty of our God, the creator of the universe, marking this as celebration of creation itself. We should recall with thanksgiving the many gifts of the year before and try to correct the weaknesses in ourselves that might stand in the way of a better year to come.
Let Rosh Hashanah color our thoughts as the year winds down towards our own celebration of the year to come.