The High Holidays: New Year Reflections, the Shofar, and Apples and Honey Read More
Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish New Year—begins at sundown on September 18 and ends on the evening of September 20, offering time for reflection and the possibility of renewal.
The Jewish New Year — Rosh Hashanah — is celebrated on the first two days of the month of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah initiates the Days of Awe — a ten-day period of repentance, prayer, and self-reflection, that culminates on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, and a fast day. According to tradition, God opens the “Book of Life” on Rosh Hashanah and closes it on Yom Kippur, offering a time to contemplate the deeds of the past year and an opportunity for renewal on the year ahead. The idea of being inscribed and sealed goes back to the Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah, 16a): “All are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and their sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur.”
While in the Talmud the holiday is called Rosh Hashanah (literally “head of the year” in Hebrew), in the Bible it is referred as Yom Teruah or “a day when the horn is sounded” (Numbers 29:1). In fact, no object is more deeply linked to Rosh Hashanah than the shofar, the animal horn that is sounded one hundred times each day of the holiday as a call to repentance and is blown at the end of Yom Kippur. Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Shofar 1:1) states that listening rather than blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a mitzvah or commandment. The number, order, and type of blasts blown on the shofar are prescribed in Jewish law. Three kinds of sounds are blown: tekiah is an unbroken sound and a sort of summons, shevarim is a grouping of three sounds akin to weeping, and teruah consists of nine short sounds emitted in rapid succession as an alarm raising spiritual awareness, culminating with the tekiah gedolah or great tekiah, an extended unbroken sound.
The soulful sounds of the shofar reverberate in the synagogue space and evoke distant places and ancient times when animal horns were blown to announce important events such as the Jubilee year or the inauguration of a king. A shofar is depicted in an old burial plaque from a Jewish catacomb in Italy, along with other ritual objects once used in the Jerusalem Temple including the seven-branched lampstand (menorah) and the palm branch bundle (lulav) used on Sukkot, the holiday following Yom Kippur. The Latin inscription on the plaque states: “Here lies Flaes the Jew,” while the Hebrew reads: “Pe[a]ce.” These symbols expressed belief in national redemption and the hope for the rebuilding of the Temple.
Many shofarot (Hebrew plural for shofar) are among the Museum’s treasured possessions, including one of the first fifteen objects to enter the collection, donated by Judge Mayer Sulzberger in 1904 to help establish the Jewish Museum. An example acquired much more recently, long and twisted, is made of kudu horn, typically found in shofarot from India and Yemen, while a German one made of ram’s horn is inscribed in Hebrew with biblical verses read during the Rosh Hashanah prayer service : “Blow the horn on the new moon, at the full moon for our feast day. For it is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob” (Psalms 81:4–5) and “With trumpets and the sound of the horn” (Psalms 98:6). Although for Maimonides the shofar must be a ram’s horn, other sources allow horns of other kosher animals, with the exception of those of a cow, bull, and related animals, due to the transgression of the golden calf, worshipped by the Israelites in the desert while Moses was on Mount Sinai (Exodus 32: 1–6).
The shofar is linked to the dramatic story of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22: 1–19) which is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In the biblical account, God mandates Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but when Abraham is about to fulfill the command he is stopped by an angel who orders him to sacrifice a ram instead.
A Torah mantle in the Jewish Museum collection features the climactic scene when the angel stays Abraham’s hand to prevent him from sacrificing his own son. As stated in the Hebrew inscription below the scene, the mantle was dedicated in 1875/76 to the synagogue of Pfaffenhoffen, a small town in Alsace, in northeastern France. A crown surmounts the composition, flanked by the Hebrew initials for “Crown of Torah.” Below the crown is the all-seeing eye, a symbol of divine providence in Christianity, reflecting Jewish acculturation following Emancipation. A few similar Torah mantles exist, all featuring the same biblical scene and all made for Jewish communities in Alsace in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Their color is also white, traditional in synagogue textiles made for use in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Reflection and prayer are important aspects of the Days of Awe. The prayers for the High Holidays are contained in the mahzor or prayer book for the Jewish festivals. Among Italian Jews, it was customary for bride and groom to exchange gifts (sivlonot). An elaborate silver book cover for a mahzor in the Jewish Museum collection exemplifies this custom as well as the adoption of unofficial coats of arms among affluent Italian Jews. At center on the front of this cover is a gate above which rests a lion, the emblem of the Portaleone family of Rome (“porta” and “leone” meaning “gate” and “lion” in Italian). The back cover is decorated with the crest of the Grassini family, two rampant lions flanking a tower, indicating that this lavish festival prayer book cover was made to celebrate a marriage between the two families.
While white is the preponderant color of synagogue textiles used in the High Holidays, and some Ashkenazi men wear a kittel (white robe) at synagogue during this time as a symbol of spiritual purity, in Jewish communities in Yemen and Central Asia dark colors are associated with the sobering spirit of the Days of Awe. The lulwi, an indigo-dyed grand dress used by a Sanaa Jewish woman on Yom Kippur, was first worn by her on the Sabbath after giving birth, when she received her female guests at home. At death it became her burial dress, placed over her funeral shroud. The lulwi reminded a new mother that she had been close to death while giving birth, symbolically linking the beginning and the end of life.
A traditional ceremony performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah is the symbolic casting of sins by a moving body of water. Known as Tashlich (Hebrew for “you will hurl”) this practice is derived from the passage in the biblical Book of Micah (7:19): “You will hurl all our [their] sins into the depths of the sea.” If the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on a Sabbath, Tashlich is done on the second day of the holiday and if unable to perform this ceremony on Rosh Hashanah, one may do so until the last day of Sukkot.
In the mid-1950s as photographer Robert Frank embarked in a cross-country trip to document post-war America in thousands of images, he captured a Tashlich ceremony being performed at the East River in New York. Published in the resulting book titled The Americans (1958), the scene evokes Jack Kerouac’s words about Frank in the introduction: “unobtrusive…with that little camera he raises and snaps with one hand, he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film.”
Like Robert Frank, but some twenty years later, and thousands of miles away from the United States, the Tbilisi born photographer Nodar Djindjihashvili set out on a quest of his own. Compelled by a drive to capture for posterity the last remaining traces of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, he went on a two-year secret journey photographing dwindling communities in the then far reaches of the Caucasus Mountains and Central Asia, from his native Georgia to the mountain villages in today Azerbaijan, and beyond to Bukhara (today in Uzbekistan).
Among Djindjihashvili’s many photographs are some he captured in the small village of Krasnaya Sloboda, then home to a vanishing community of Mountain Jews, which in recent times has experienced somewhat of a revival. Descendants from Babylonian Jews who migrated to Persia, possibly arriving in the region by the sixth century BCE, Mountain Jews lived for centuries in complete isolation from Western Jewish communities, developing their own language and traditions. Yet they shared with other Jews around the world the custom of a festive Rosh Hashanah meal. Djindjihashvili’s image of a solitary man seated at the head of the table, elicits many questions. Are his eyes downcast to avoid the camera on a Jewish holiday when photography is traditionally not allowed? Is he absorbed in a private prayer? The abundant food display on the table intimates that more people have partaken in the festive meal, and that it is now time for fruit and tea. Yet the photographer has chosen to capture this lonely moment, somewhat emblematic of the waning communities he was documenting.
While today many people may send their loved ones best wishes for Rosh Hashanah via email or text message, not too long ago sending paper New Year greetings was very popular. The tradition in fact goes back centuries. The medieval Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Moellin, known as Maharil, encouraged the writing of special greetings to friends and family for Rosh Hashanah. With the rise of modern manufacturing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, greeting cards were produced commercially. Prior to 1939, publishing houses such as the Williamsburg Art Company and the Hebrew Publishing Company of New York had their greeting cards printed in Germany, a major producer of this type of material before World War II.
An unusual Rosh Hashanah greeting in the Jewish Museum collection comes from Nome, Alaska, combining the Jewish custom of sending New Year cards with the centuries-old Inuit craft of walrus-tusk carving. The couple depicted on the tusk may have run a store in Nome. The greeting, carved by a prominent artist known as Happy Jack, features the traditional Hebrew expression “May you be inscribed for a good year” within a flower garland, and the year in the Jewish calendar — 671 = 1910 — engraved on the gold Star of David. Jews played an important role in the western migration. A Jewish-owned firm secured Alaskan seal-fishing rights, and, in 1885, the first permanent Jewish settlers arrived in Juneau. The discovery of gold near Nome spurred a mass immigration of fortune-seekers, including a number of Jews.
This year has been a challenging one with the world facing a devastating pandemic. The pleading verses of Avinu Malkenu (“Our Father, our King”), a central prayer in the High Holidays liturgy imploring riddance from disease and healing for the sick, will certainly have an added resonance. Jews around the world will be hoping for a new year filled with health, justice, peace, and prosperity. As they congregate virtually or in person with their families and friends, they will be also partaking in an uplifting ritual, the eating of apples and honey for sweet a new year.
— Claudia J. Nahson, Morris & Eva Feld Senior Curator
The High Holidays: New Year Reflections, the Shofar, and Apples and Honey was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.