"Days of Awe" - The Birthday of Humility

by Larry Goldbaum

Although usually rendered as “the Jewish New Year,” the Hebrew words Rosh Hashanah literally mean “head of the year.” At first glance this seems odd, since the holiday falls in the lunar month of Tishri, which is the seventh month, not the first month, according to the Bible.

This is merely one of the mysteries of this most sacred of the Jewish Holy Days. What then do we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah? According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the day on which God created “adam”—the Hebrew word for “human.” In other words, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of humanity. It is a celebration of life itself.

Now it’s no small matter to celebrate the birthday of humanity—not the sort of thing one can do adequately with cake and ice cream (although sweets, such as apples dipped in honey, are an important part of our celebration). The occasion is at once so solemn and so joyous that it has generated a multitude of rituals, from the many prayers and melodies heard in the synagogue only on the High Holy Days, to the beautiful Tashlich service in which we ritually cast away our wrongdoings from the previous year by throwing breadcrumbs into a stream; and of course the joyous family gatherings, especially the festive dinners before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (which unfortunately many students can’t get to, if their families live far away or if the holidays fall in the middle of the week).

While it is a distinct holiday, Rosh Hashanah does not stand alone. Rather, it is like a sentinel standing watch over a month of Jewish celebration and reflection, which begins with the ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). We call these ten days the “Days of Awe” because of the awesome burden we feel, both individually and collectively, to atone for our misdeeds, to make peace with our brothers and sisters, and then to face God’s judgment. Jewish tradition holds that the gates of Heaven close as the sun goes down on Yom Kippur, and that our fate is sealed at that awesome moment. That is why we fast on Yom Kippur; for on that day we are concerned solely with the fate of the soul.

For me personally, the High Holy Days are an extraordinary gift, a time to leave behind the worldly concerns which otherwise occupy so much of my life. The ancient prayers and soulful melodies (chanted in minor keys which would sound familiar to someone from Turkey or northern Africa) help me find my way to the sustained introspection and the profound humility which I need in order to hear “the still, small voice within.”

Sadly, it is impossible to leave behind all worldly concerns as I, and millions of other Jews around the world, enter a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah to hear the blast of the shofar (the ram’s horn, which is sounded like a trumpet to awaken us spiritually), for at this most sublime moment I am painfully aware that I am different from the majority of people in this country and at this university. Most of my colleagues will be at work while I am at the synagogue, and inevitably (it happens every year) I will miss something important. That is simply the reality of being a minority culture in a predominantly Christian country. It is a reality I’ve largely resigned myself to but which still causes me pain.

There’s no easy solution. For one thing, Jews comprise an extremely diverse group, including many who consider themselves either secular or “cultural” Jews who are not religiously observant, many of whom will nevertheless go to a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, if at no other time during the year, because of the sheer power of these holidays in Jewish tradition and Jewish consciousness.

To really complicate matters, there are also different Jewish denominations (just like in Protestantism), most of which observe Rosh Hashanah for two days; although Reform Jews in the U.S. and most Israeli Jews (the majority of whom consider themselves secular) celebrate the holiday for just one day. This discrepancy, which is confusing even to many Jews, has its origins in the earliest days of the Jewish “diaspora,” when the sighting of the New Moon, and hence the beginning of the holidays, had to be confirmed by Jewish priests at the Temple in Jerusalem and then conveyed, by means of torches placed on hilltops, to outlying Jewish communities. This process was, to say the least, inexact, and it gave rise to the two-day observance in the diaspora.

Although our history and religious practices might seem confusing, two things are clear: The first is the University’s policy concerning days of religious observance, which states that “any student [whether Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Bahai, Christian, Buddhist, or any other religion] who is unable to attend classes or to participate in any examination, study or work requirement because of religious observance is to be provided with an opportunity to make up the examination, study or work requirement.” Most professors are respectful of this policy, though some are not. If you have a problem with a professor, call the department head or the Ombuds Office at 413-545-0867 [or call Larry Goldbaum in the Office of Jewish Affairs, 413-545-9642].

It is also clear that no policy, by itself, can make students feel comfortable and truly welcome in our community. That requires the support and sensitivity of the entire community. So if you know any Jewish students who are celebrating the holidays, consider wishing them “shanah tovah” (which is Hebrew for “a good year”). And if you know of any student who is having difficulty because of their religion or race or ethnicity or sexual preference—consider reaching out a hand and letting them know that you’re one of the people here who truly values diversity.

Shanah tovah!

This column was originally published in the Massachusetts Daily Collegian 
on September 25, 1995.