(The Conversation) – In the next few weeks, members of the Jewish faith will observe the high holidays of the month of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar, usually in September and October. These holidays evoke concepts such as renewal, forgiveness, freedom, and joy.
As a Bible and antiquarian scholar, I am continually struck by how the history of these festivals brings comfort and encouragement to live well during a pandemic.
What are the High Holidays?
Of the two most important High Holidays, also known as High Holidays, the first is Rosh Hashanah or the New Year. It is one of two New Year festivals in the Jewish faith, the other being the spring Passover festival.
The second High Holiday is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
In addition to the major holidays, there are other celebrations that take place as part of the festival season. One is Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, where meals and rituals take place in a “sukkah,” or makeshift structure with a roof made of branches.
The second involves two celebrations that are part of the same holiday in some traditions and on two separate, consecutive days in others: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Shemini Atzeret is Hebrew and means “eighth (day of) assembly”, counting eight days from Sukkot. Simchat Torah is Hebrew for “joy/joy in the Torah” – the Torah is the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, believed to have been revealed to Moses.
Of particular interest for the 2021 High Holidays is that Rosh Hashanah also begins a year-long celebration known as “Shmita.”
The term is observed every seven years and comes from a Hebrew expression found in several places in the Bible. Some of these passages call for the farmer to “drop” or “release” his crops. Another verse connects the act to the forgiveness of debts. In another scripture, the shmita is associated with the reading of God’s revelation in the law.
The exact nature of the action designated by Shmita is debated, but the idea is that some of the food is left behind for the poor and hungry in society.
In this way, the beginning of the High Holy Days of 2021 is a reminder to care for those who are struggling.
Why celebrate these festivals?
The origins and reasons for the High Holy Days are somewhat encoded in the Bible and in the agrarian and religious culture that produced them. The millennia of Jewish tradition between the Bible and the present have also shaped many of the celebrations that transcend the biblical texts.
The first holiday, Rosh Hashanah, celebrates renewal. It involves the blowing of the shofar, itself associated with the ram sacrificed in place of Abraham’s son, as God commanded Abraham. Important activities include going to the synagogue to hear the shofar and eating slices of apple with honey, the former symbolizing hope for fertility and the honey a wish for a sweet year.
It also often involves a ritual of throwing bread onto running water called tashlich, which symbolizes the removal of sins from people.
Rosh Hashanah is believed to mark the date of the creation of the world and begins the “days of reverence,” a 10-day period culminating in Yom Kippur.
The term “days of reverence” itself is a more literal translation of the Hebrew phrase used for the high holy days.
Concepts of repentance and forgiveness are given special emphasis in Yom Kippur. Its origins can be found in the Hebrew Bible, where it describes the one day of the year when willful, willful sins, such as willful transgression of divine commands and prohibitions, were forgiven.
Willful sins were viewed as creating impurity in the heart of the temple in Jerusalem where God was said to live. The Israelites believed that the impurity of willful sin posed a threat to this divine presence, since God might choose to leave the temple.
The biblical description of Yom Kippur involved a series of sacrifices and rituals aimed at removing sin from the people. For example, a goat was believed to carry the sins of the Israelites and was sent into the wilderness, where it was consumed by Azazel, a mysterious, perhaps demonic, force. Azazel consumed the goat and the sins it carried. The term “scapegoat” is derived from this act in English.
Yom Kippur is both the holiest day of the Jewish calendar and one of the most somber, as the time of repentance includes fasting and prayer.
Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
The festival of Sukkot probably began as an agricultural festival, and the stalls were shelters where farmers stayed while they harvested the grain to be processed for the year.
Traces of this agricultural commemoration appear in certain Bible passages, one of which states that the festival was to last for seven days to mark the time when the Israelites, leaving Egypt, dwelt in huts or temporary dwellings with branches.
This festival was known as zeman simchatenu, or “the season of our rejoicing,” in reference to the themes of gratitude, freedom from Egypt, and the reading of God’s revelation to all Israel as found in the Torah.
Such a time of rejoicing contrasts with the sombre repentance and fasting that characterize Yom Kippur. The Feast of Tabernacles was so important that it is also known simply as “the Chag” or “the Feast,” a word related to the more well-known Hajj pilgrimage in Islam.
This seven-day period ends with Shemini Atzeret on the eighth day, both an associated celebration crowning Sukkot and a festival in its own right.
The annual reading of the Torah ends with the concluding text of Deuteronomy. The beginning of the next annual reading cycle, beginning with the first book of Genesis, is also celebrated. This act of beginning a new year of Bible reading is celebrated with the festival called Simchat Torah.
Simchat Torah observance was a later innovation, described as early as the fifth century or so, but not formalized or identified with that name until the Middle Ages.
Why are they important?
Religious calendars and festivals can force people to encounter certain performances in the year. For example, they can allow them to face the more difficult dynamics of life, such as repentance and forgiveness, by providing opportunities to reflect on the events of the past year and find the courage to live differently next year where needed.
In this way, structuring the celebration of the New Year around memories of a variety of human experiences, both sadness and joy, brings with it a deep appreciation of the complexities of relationships and experiences in life.
In particular, the high holidays—as exemplified in the renewal of Rosh Hashanah, the sombre reflection of Yom Kippur—as well as the joyous celebrations of Sukkot and Simchat Torah offer a vehicle to remember that time itself is healing and restorative is.
As such, the High Holy Days and holiday season in Tishrei help mark the year in a meaningful way and highlight our moral responsibility to one another.
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https://wgntv.com/news/nexstar-media-wire/what-are-the-jewish-high-holy-days-a-look-at-rosh-hashanah-and-yom-kippur/ What are the Jewish Holidays? A look at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur