This year, Rosh Hashanah begins on the evening of Oct. 2. On the first day of the holiday, we read the Haftorah that tells us the story of Chana the prophetess, who prayed to G-d for a child. She prayed softly while whispering. Eli, the high priest and leader of the Jewish people, thought she was drunk, as this type of prayer was foreign to him.
She replied, “I’m not drunk, I’m praying for a child!”
Chana prayed to G-d and told Him, through her prophecy, that her child would be an important person in the Jewish nation. This, in fact, came true. Her wish was fulfilled, her son Samuel was born, and he became one of the greatest prophets of the Jewish people.
Chana’s method of prayer is used as the basis for all the Jewish laws of prayer. As well, the rabbis of the Great Assembly instituted the text of the prayers throughout the year based on Chana’s manner, specifically for the Amidah prayer of 18 blessings, called Shmona Esray, which is recited quietly while standing. This prayer is also said with deep concentration, as we are standing in G-d’s presence.
But there are also times when our hearts need to open up and scream out loud for what we need or want in our own words. G-d wants us to open our hearts to Him and give Him our emotions. Every day, all year long, each prayer we recite brings us closer to G-d. Every prayer we recite is immensely valuable if said with sincere feeling. When we need something and feel that only G-d can help us, we shout out to Him as we do when something hurts us physically.
Prayer is immensely powerful, especially when recited as a kindness for others. Our sages taught that if a person prays for a friend, they fulfil the biblical commandment (mitzvah) of performing kindness. If one is in the same situation as their friend and prays for their friend, they will be answered first.
There is the story of a farmer who went to his synagogue on Rosh Hashanah but couldn’t read at all. Being illiterate, he just wrapped himself in his tallit and stood shaking and screaming like a rooster, as that was the only way he knew how to express himself from the heart.
Our sages also taught that G-d receives more satisfaction from a single Jew praying than He does from the millions of heavenly angels who sing His praises day and night.
On Rosh Hashanah, there are many prayers we recite from the special prayer book, the Machzor. One of these is the Avinu Malkeinu prayer that means, “Our Father, our King.” This moving prayer lists our shortcomings and our needs as we plead for mercy from two perspectives. One is that G-d is our father who loves us and provides for us, so how could we be ungrateful to Him? The second one is that G-d is our king, who has absolute power over us and to whom we owe total allegiance, so how dare we challenge His authority?
Nevertheless, He always remains merciful. Therefore, we take the courage to approach Him from both aspects in our time of helplessness. If we deserve His mercy, let Him be tender as a parent and, if not, let Him judge us as necessary cogs in His empire. When the world sees G-d’s concern for His errant people, His glory becomes elevated and we become closer to Him.
We also listen to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, which symbolizes the depth of our emotions that come out in a cry. It, too, is a form of prayer, an emotional outburst to G-d. There’s a simple message on Rosh Hashanah, that when we cry from the heart, someone listens! That’s the message of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. When words end, the cry of the shofar begins. It is the sound of our tears. Tekiya: the call without words that surrounds all the shofar’s cries. Shevarim: a series of three sobs. Teruah: nine sighs, with which we ask G-d for His forgiveness.
May G-d hear all our prayers and supplications and grant us a healthy and prosperous year. May He hear all our prayers, silent and aloud, and fulfil them so that we will merit to hear the shofar of Moshiach imminently. Please G-d we will see real peace in Israel and all over the world.
Esther Taubyis a local educator, writer and counselor.
In just over a week, many of us will be in the synagogue. While listening to the sounds of the shofar, feel their power and reflect. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the synagogue listening to the blasting of the shofar, something many of us will be doing just over a week from now. Feel the power of the sound – the staccato notes, the longer notes, and the really, really long note – reverberate throughout the sanctuary.
The sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah serves as a wakeup call for the Jewish people, a chance to start over with a clean slate. Maimonides describes the wakeup call in the Mishneh Torah, a code of Jewish religious law.
“Arise you who are fast asleep, and awaken you who slumber,” he writes. “Search your deeds, repent and be mindful of your Creator….”
Now close your eyes again and, this time, look back at the year behind you.
Did you live a year that mattered, and did you fill it with meaning? Did you laugh easily? Did you connect with someone new? Did you cultivate deeper connections with people you already knew? Did you chat with the barista at your coffee house? Did you smile at children?
Did you look up from toggling between apps on your phone to watch a setting sun or notice a full moon? Were you brave enough to take some risks and leap – even if you were scared? Did you dance? Did you say sorry, and mean it, to someone you hurt? Did you wander slowly through the rain? Did you notice ladybugs?
Did you honor your parents, your grandparents and other people who helped form you into the person you are today? Did you think about how your food gets from the land to your plate? Did you treat your body as a temple, at least some of the time? Did you stand up for the things that matter to you and stick up for people who needed it?
Were you sensitive to the pain and bloodshed of others that you heard about in the news – in your city, in Israel, and around the world? Were you present? Did you teach your children to be kind to people, to animals and to the earth? Did you give tzedakah? Did you give thanks each day for something in your life? When you spoke about other people, were you thoughtful about what you chose to say? Did you appreciate the fact that someone always has it worse than you do, and did you recognize that you’re luckier than most people in this world? Were you honest? Did you trust?
Did you give yourself a break about the things beyond your control? Did you value the sacrifices of your ancestors that made the world a better place? Were you a mentor to anyone? Did you open your mind and listen to people whose beliefs and ideas are different from your own? Did you let a baby’s tiny hand grasp your finger? Did you give big tips? Did you visit someone sick? Did you read and learn about something new? Did you do something you didn’t really feel like doing because you knew it would make someone else happy?
Did you stand and say the Mourner’s Kaddish for someone you loved and lost, or did you say it alongside someone else who lost a loved one? Did you learn a new skill? Did you smell rosemary, pinewood, vanilla or cinnamon? Did you invite a guest to come and share your Shabbat table? Did you dream big?
OK, now that you’ve looked back over the past year, close your eyes again – but this time look ahead to next year.
How will you fill your life and the lives of others with spirituality, meaning and love? Who will you surround yourself with?
We, Jews, are lucky for a chance to take stock – to awaken from our slumber – and then press reset for a new year.
Wishing you and your loved ones a year ahead filled with health, happiness, sweetness, fulfilment and peace. L’shanah tovah u’metukah!
Cindy Sheris the executive editor of Chicago’s JUF News. To read more from JNS.org, click here.
To make biblical date honey, Middle Eastern Jews boil and press dates that range in color from yellow to brown. (photo by Barry A. Kaplan)
The Torah describes Israel as eretz zvat chalav u’dvash, the land flowing with milk and honey, although the honey was more than likely date honey, since beekeeping is not mentioned in the Bible.
The word honey in Hebrew, dvash, has the same numerical value as the words Av Harachamim, Father of Mercy. We hope that G-d will be merciful on Rosh Hashanah as He judges us for our year’s deeds.
To make silan, or biblical date honey, Middle Eastern Jews boil and press dates that range in color from yellow to brown. Apples can be dipped into the date honey in the hope for a sweet new year. In the markets in Israel during this season, one finds strings of these dates.
In the 2011 article “Cooking class, it’s a date, honey,” cookbook author Faye Levy writes: “For many Jews, apples are the Rosh Hashanah fruit par excellence. For me, fresh dates are the fruit that herald the coming of the New Year. As soon as I see the bright yellow dates at the market, I begin to plan my menus.
“I’ve heard people say they’re not fond of fresh yellow dates. I have learned to enjoy them at their khalal [initial] stage, when they are crunchy and less sweet, but I prefer to wait until they become honey-brown, [the] stage called rutab.”
There are several kinds of dates grown in Israel, including Medjool, which Levy notes “are delicious and easier to find than perfectly ripened yellow dates.”
But, regardless of type, dates are a traditional Rosh Hashanah food, and form part of the Sephardi seder, which dates to the Babylonian Talmud.
“An elaborate Maghrebi [the region made up of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya] specialty calls for nut-stuffed dates that are used to stuff a chicken or a large fish,” writes Levy. For Shabbat, she explains, dates might be added to dafina, which is a Sephardi meat stew cooked overnight to eat on Saturday lunch, or Moroccan hamin, another slow-cooked overnight stew for Saturday eating. The dates “contribute a subtle sweetness that mellows the flavor of the sauce. A dish from Baghdad from the Middle Ages calls for stewing lamb with dates and sweet spices.”
Silan, which Levy notes was brought to Israel by Iraqi Jews, is also known as date molasses or date syrup.
Varda Shilo, author of Kurdistani Cooking (in Hebrew), describes how to make it. Dried dates are simmered in water to porridge consistency, then the mixture is spooned into a cloth bag, moistened with more water and squeezed to remove the juice. This juice is simmered until thickened and is kept in jars.
Shilo explains that breakfast is the meal at which date honey is most often enjoyed in the Middle East, mixed with tahini (sesame seed paste) and served with bread.
Kinneret Farm silan makers suggest other ways of using date honey, such as adding it to stir-fried vegetables, as a sweetener for beverages, in sweet-potato pancakes, with an added dash of cinnamon.
“Dates are best known for their uses in sweets,” writes Shilo. “They are a favorite filling for the rich Middle Eastern cookies called ma’amoul and for rolled cookies resembling rugelach that are popular around the region.”
“In Persia,” write Reyna Simnegar, author of Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride, “walnut-stuffed dates are a Rosh Hashanah treat. The stuffed dates are drizzled with a little syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon.
“Another popular way to serve dates is as a snack with tea.”
“Cooks in Egypt use the firm, fresh yellow dates to make jam,” says Levana Zamir in Cooking from the Nile’s Land (in Hebrew). “They also use them to make stuffed dates. First, they remove the dates’ very thin peel with a sharp knife and cook the dates in water until they are soft. Next, they pit the dates without cutting them in half.
Instead, they push the pit out with a hairpin so that each date can be stuffed with a blanched, peeled almond. Then they make a clove-and-lemon-flavored syrup from the dates’ cooking liquid. One by one, the stuffed dates are carefully added to the syrup, simmered and then cooled. The sweets are served with Turkish coffee and a glass of cold water. Making them is quite an undertaking but … these stuffed fresh dates are a delicacy fit for kings.”
Some Moroccans dip apples in honey and serve cooked quince, which is an apple-like fruit, symbolizing a sweet future. Other Moroccans dip dates in sesame and anise seeds and powdered sugar in addition to dipping apples in honey.
In her book The Foods of Israel Today, Joan Nathan writes about having lunch at Jerusalem restaurant Eucalyptus, when owner/chef Moshe Basson put a bowl of tahini “on the table and swirled in a date syrup called silan or halek, which he explained was a biblical ‘honey,’ one of the seven foods in the land of Canaan cited in the Book of Deuteronomy. Today, visitors can see a 2,000-year-old date-honey press, similar to an ancient wine press but smaller, near the Dead Sea at Qumran, the sites where, in 1947, a Bedouin youth found the Dead Sea Scrolls hidden in earthen jars.”
Nathan writes further that Ben-Zion Israeli, one of the founders of Kibbutz Kinneret, dressed as an Arab and, in 1933, went to Iraq and smuggled 900 date saplings back to Palestine. Over the years, with many trips, he brought back more than 7,000 saplings from Iraq, Iran and Kurdistan; about half took root. Shmuel Stoller later brought saplings from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In the 1970s, Medjool and Deglet Noor varieties were introduced from the Coachella Valley in California.
If you are wondering about dates and your health, Judy Siegel-Itzkovich writes in the 2013 Jerusalem Post article “Local dates are best variety to fight disease”: “All nine varieties of dates grown in Israel and found on any supermarket shelf have characteristics that make them better than other varieties at helping protect those who consume them against cardiovascular diseases.
“This has just been demonstrated by Prof. Michael Aviram and colleagues from Haifa’s Rambam Medical Centre and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The research was published in the prestigious Journal of Agriculture Food Chemistry.”
The research team found that the most effective varieties for health are yellow, Barhi, Deri, Medjool and Halawi dates, and that, despite there being about 20 different types of dates growing around the world, those from the Jordan Valley and the Arava are the best.
Aviram warned Siegel-Itzkovich, however, that silan won’t help much. “As silan is a sweet concentrate that does not contain fibres, it is far from the real thing,” he said.
The article also noted, “A study the researchers published in the same journal four years ago showed that eating three dates a day does not raise blood sugar levels in healthy people, but it does reduce blood triglycerides and even ‘improves the quality’ of blood cholesterol by reducing its oxidation. These effects reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and other vascular diseases, they said.”
Nonetheless, Aviram advised diabetics against eating a lot of dates, as they are high in sugar.
In addition to the health benefits of dates, the Post article also highlighted 2009 research Aviram had led, showing that “antioxidants from the group of polyphenols found in pomegranates, red wine and olive oil help remove plaque from inside the arteries. In the new research, the team found that dates can bring about the slowing and even regression of atherosclerosis (accumulation of fatty plaque) in the coronary arteries, and that eating one of the three specific date varieties is most effective.
“The material in dates has the clear ability to speed up the removal of excess cholesterol from endothelial cells inside blood vessels, the team said.”
While dates have been grown for thousands of years and their health benefits have been cited since ancient times, it is only in relatively recent history that science is confirming many of the beliefs.
High in fibre and also containing many minerals, such as potassium, zinc, magnesium and calcium, Aviram and his team, writes Siegel-Itzkovich, “recommend following a Mediterranean diet – with its variety of vegetables and fruit (including dates), fish, whole grains and olive oil – rather than eating just one or two ingredients, so that a whole range of oxidative factors that cause atherosclerosis can be neutralized.”
Sybil Kaplanis a journalist, foreign correspondent, lecturer, food writer and book reviewer who lives in Jerusalem. She also does the restaurant features for janglo.net and leads walks in English in Jerusalem’s market.
As an alternative or addition to synagogue services, you could find a nice place outside in which to pray or reflect. (photo by Jan Lieberman via Wikimedia Commons)
There is a lot of beauty to the traditional synagogue experience. However, a traditional High Holidays service just does not speak to some, especially many young adults.
“Buying seats for the High Holidays is super-expensive,” said Rachel Moses, a marketer for a Jewish nonprofit from Mt. Washington, Md. “It also just doesn’t feel like it’s my place.”
If you think like Moses, consider skipping the tickets, and celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur outside the traditional four walls of your family synagogue. Here are nine alternative ways to connect to the High Holidays without stepping foot in a shul.
Thomas Arnold, who works in Homeland Security and is from Pikesville, Md., says people often interpret Yom Kippur as a heavy day of repentance. In contrast, the day’s prohibitions – things like fasting, not wearing leather footwear, not making love to your partner, refraining from taking a bath – are intended to help us think less about our own needs and more about those of others.
“The point is to understand there are people that don’t have food, that don’t have water, that don’t have shoes to wear,” said Arnold, citing the 18th-century ethical Jewish book Mesillat Yesharim: The Path of the Upright by Italian rabbi and philosopher Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto. “We don’t have sex because there are people in the world who don’t have partners and cannot connect in that way.”
Arnold looks for people who are in need, lacking something or are lonely, and makes a point of giving to them during the High Holiday season. Sometimes, he invites them over for a meal, and other times he just lends them a helping hand.
“On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, make it about other people,” he said.
Host a meal
Rabbi Jessy Gross, named by the Forward as one of the most inspiring rabbis of 2016, said some of her best holiday memories are not from the synagogue, but from places where people came together, like at her holiday table.
“Having meals with other people, especially if the person hosting can serve traditional Jewish foods, creates an opportunity … to celebrate Jewish food and culture,” said Gross.
Shari Seidman Klein of Beit Shemesh in Israel agrees. She cooks a holiday meal for her family, as well as for her children, a few of whom choose not to attend traditional activities. Apples and honey, round raisin challah and other sweet things bring the kids and their friends back to her dining room each year.
Klein said she often instructs her Hebrew school students, many of whom are products of intermarriage, to use the High Holidays as a time to better themselves. She tells them, “Take on one thing for one day.”
For example, rather than fasting on Yom Kippur, she recommended giving up candy, soda or something else they like to eat. Older individuals might decide to give up the personal comfort of watching TV, or they might make the higher commitment of refraining from talking badly about others.
“It’s the idea of tikkun olam, bettering the world,” said Klein. “That one thing on that one day can take you back to the basics of being – and thinking.”
One of Gross’ favorite rituals is Tashlich, for which all a person needs is access to a body of natural water such as a creek, pond or river. She recommends taking some bread or crackers and spending some time by the water meditating or journaling.
“I like to think about where I have missed the mark or haven’t reached my potential and cast this out,” she said. “It is great opportunity to … think about what you want as we evolve into the coming year. It’s a process of spiritual cleansing and preparedness.”
Form a minyan
The Israeli organization Tzohar has been working to bring together the religious and secular Jewish communities in the Jewish state. In the central city of Lod, Tzohar’s executive vice-president, Yakov Gaon, said his organization found that many secular Israelis refrain from going to synagogue, not because they don’t want to pray, but because the service is too fast, politicized, costly or uncomfortable.
“They don’t know how to dress, when to stand up or sit down,” Gaon said.
About 15 years ago, Tzohar began creating alternative minyans in community centres, schools and gyms. The services bring like-minded people together. Each service is assigned a leader who announces the prayer page numbers to read, and explains what’s happening in the prayers. Today, more than 56,000 people take part in these Yom Kippur services at 300 locations across Israel. An additional 1,500 people attend one of Tzohar’s 60 Rosh Hashanah services.
Go to Israel
While it may be too late now to book a trip, in general, traveling to Israel on or around the High Holidays is a more special experience than traveling there during nearly any other time of year, said Arnold, whose daughter is studying in Israel for the year.
Arnold said Israelis have a reputation for being rude or pushy, but during the Hebrew month of Elul – this month, which leads up to Rosh Hashanah – Israelis tend to mellow out.
“It’s like they know it instinctively,” Arnold said with a laugh. “Their Jewish souls come out and they know it is the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days) and they better get themselves together.”
The whole country prepares with holiday festivals, music, delicious holidays foods and smells, he said.
Skipping the rabbi’s sermon? Write your own, and invite others to hear it. Klein has tapped into several online resources, such as myjewishlearning.com, to provide fodder for discussion at the table, or for her son and his friends to discuss in an intimate setting. Gross, too, said that using online content and hosting a discussion group can help you learn about the holiday, and then share those insights with others.
Reflect in Elul
There is still time to make an Elul reflection calendar. Create a pie chart divided by the Hebrew months, said Gross. Break each pie down by the number of days in that month. On each slice, record a guided meditation question or something you want to work on. Then, every morning or before bed, read it and reflect.
Here, too, Gross added, there are plenty of online trigger questions if you need guidance.
Have a picnic
Mt. Washington’s Moses said hosting or attending a holiday picnic brings people together, offering a venue to eat traditional foods and also spend time in nature. While the children are playing, the adults can host the aforementioned discussion group, or meditate under the open sky.
In general, being outside is a good way to infuse spirituality into your holiday. Transform your backyard, a park or a forest into a synagogue and pray.
Most years, Moses attends Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Rosh Hashanah Under the Stars program, which offers an alternative Jewish New Year get-together for members and non-members.
“There are thousands of people there, right under the stars, with no ceiling above you,” said Moses. “You feel like you are one with nature, with each other and with God – whatever sense of God there is.”
On years she cannot make the service, she and her family might travel to Ocean City, Md., instead. “We’ll just sit there and listen to the ocean,” she said.
Among the coins and other archeological treasures discovered in a ruined Byzantine public structure near the Temple Mount’s southern wall in 2013 was a gold medallion (inset) inscribed with a menora, a shofar and a Torah scroll, reflecting the historical presence of Jews in the area. The items are thought to have been abandoned in the context of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE. Hanging from a gold chain, the medallion is most likely an ornament for a Torah scroll. (photos from Ashernet)
Fleeing the Nazis, the Pesten family found themselves adrift in some nowhere land in the Soviet Union, wandering through the mud of Uzbekistan, remembering all the adventures they had met since deciding to pack their bags and flee. They felt a yearning for home and some envy for friends who stayed. No one knew yet about the concentration camps and gas chambers. In reality, there was no time for longings or regret, as they had to wake up early every morning and search for food.
The woman of the family, Hanna, was worried. It was only a few days before Rosh Hashana and there was no food in their temporary home. She wasn’t only concerned about that. She was troubled that, in this remote place, they wouldn’t hear the shofar and its blasts of t’kia, sh’varim and t’rua. She would miss the holy shudder she always experienced in those exalted moments of the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana.
The situation was not yet hopeless. She walked the long distance to the nearby town until she came to a massive garbage heap. She wasn’t deterred by the foul stench. She began to sift through the garbage for hours, although it seemed like an eternity. Would she even find what she was looking for?
The pounding of her heart increased by the minute until, with a broad smile, she pulled out of the smelly heap, the rotten head of a ram that had been slaughtered a few days earlier and was providentially still there.
The slender moon of the end of the month was slowly traversing the gloomy skies of Uzbekistan. The angels looked down from heaven in amazement at a tiny, frail woman, who was bent over, sitting on a low stool, cleaning a curved ram’s horn with a small metal wire as she quietly sang a melody of thanks to G-d. She kept scraping without stopping and without fatigue. Then, with tremendous effort, she finally managed to completely remove the inner bone from the shofar.
That year, the stirring sounds of the shofar blasts echoed through the narrow lanes of Uzbekistan. Due to Hanna’s devotion, the community of Jewish refugees merited that this beloved mitzva was not missed. (Story excerpted from Jewish Tales of Holy Women by Yitzhak Buxbaum.)
Thankfully, here in Canada, we don’t need to do what this brave woman did to hear the shofar. On Rosh Hashana, we only need to go to a synagogue, Chabad House or community gathering. This year is called the year of Hakhel (Gathering), which takes place every seven years after the year of Sh’mita, where everyone would travel to Jerusalem for the festival of Sukkot and be in the presence of G-d when the Holy Temples stood. This year, it is even more auspicious to gather together on the first days of the new Jewish year, which begins at sundown on Sunday, Sept. 13, and continues through Tuesday the 15th.
So, why do we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana? The Talmud writes that G-d commands us to recite verses of kingship so that we may crown Him upon us, verses of zichronot (remembrances) so that He will remember us for good. And Rabbi Abahu adds that we blow the ram’s horn to remember the Akeidat Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac).
There are three physical acts associated with the shofar: there is the blowing of the air, the lips that touch the shofar and the physical shofar itself, receiving the air and producing a sound.
The air is known as the hevel (breath) of the mouth. What is this hevel? It’s not just air, it’s something much greater. A person blowing the shofar gives over his entire self, this is the self-sacrifice. What is being produced, however, is not my or the shofar blower’s air, but the sound of the shofar itself. In fact, the blessing recited is “Lishmoa kol shofar,” “To hear the sound of the shofar.” Although human air is producing it, we refer to the sound as coming from the shofar. The person blowing the shofar is not of prime significance, his breath is greater than his limited self.
Our sages explain that the shofar is produced by the hevel from the depths of the heart. The word hevel is comprised of the same letters as the word halev, the heart. When a person speaks, their hevel/breath is affected by the five motions of the mouth that are used to create different vowels. When the shofar is being blown, the mouth is not involved. When one speaks, it is their voice that is heard. With the shofar, there is something much greater going on, much deeper.
According to the Jewish mystics, the letters comprising the word hevel (and halev) represent the five books of the Torah. In lev (heart), the letter hay is equal to five, followed by the numerical value of the remaining letters of lamed (30) and vet (two). These are the first and last letters of the Torah. The hevel of the heart is so much more than words. The sound of the shofar can’t have anything added to it that will make it appear more beautiful – it is pure and is capable of bringing pure spirituality down from above.
The shofar is greater even than prayer. Rosh Hashana is called Yom T’rua, Day of Blasts, not Yom T’fila, Day of Prayer. Prayer may be straight from the heart, especially on the holy day of Rosh Hashana, the first day of the Jewish year, but it is our mouths that form the words. The breath of the shofar is spirituality; there is nothing physical intertwined with it.
We can ask, “Why do we need a shofar at all? Why do we not just shout out loud without uttering any words?” It is because we want to remind G-d of the great near sacrifice of our father Abraham and our patriarch Isaac to arouse G-d’s mercy on us on Rosh Hashana as He did for them. It is the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashana.
We find in Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer that the ram, which our sages teach us was “caught by its horns in a thicket,” (Genesis/Breishit 22:13) is the one that was used. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa adds that it was a special ram. Its skin was the belt used by Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet); its left horn was blown at Mount Sinai upon our receiving the Torah, while the right horn will be blown with the coming of the Moshiach. It will usher in a time of peace in Israel and throughout the world.
May we all be written and inscribed for a year filled with many blessings for our families and communities, “ktiva v’chatima tova.”
Esther Taubyis a local educator, writer and counselor.
Paul Harnett felt “compelled to understand the nature of the shofar, and what it embodied.” (photo from Paul Harnett)
In 2000, Paul Harnett was living in Vancouver. On the day before a flight to the East Coast for a family reunion, his mother asked him to purchase her a shofar. He found one at Temple Sholom. He didn’t know it at the time, but that purchase would lead him on a journey of personal transformation, turning him – 14 years later – into one of the Lower Mainland’s main shofar producers.
Harnett, 53, who lives in Abbotsford with his wife Iris, is inspired by Judaism but not halachically Jewish himself. When asked what brought him to shofar making, he said, “The shofar picked me, I felt drawn by it.” Moreover, he felt “compelled to understand the nature of the shofar, and what it embodied…. Shofar making requires lots of practise and perseverance and getting the horn blown properly takes many months to perfect the art.”
In 2009, an Orthodox Jewish friend from Montreal claimed Harnett’s shofars were not kosher due to the type of horn used. Concerned, Harnett wrote to Rabbi Eliezer Danzinger of chabad.org, who responded, citing Orach Chaim (586:1), that they are indeed kosher because his horns come from kosher animals. With renewed confidence, Harnett committed to producing the highest quality shofars that he could for his customers around the country.
Harnett sources raw horns from Israel, England, Africa and the United States. Each horn has a unique sound and, if properly tuned, can be used as musical accompaniment. Composer Herman Berlinski, for example, and others have explored the dynamics of this ancient instrument.
On two occasions, Harnett has blown the shofar for visiting dignitaries from the Knesset, once in order for them to honor and recognize the Tsawwassen First Nation. Among other events, he also accompanied a blowing of the shofar at a Holocaust memorial hosted by Beth El Synagogue in St. John’s, Nfld.
In addition to the command to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, there are other reasons to own your own. “The shofar is not only a prayer without words,” said Harnett, “it is a visible testament of our identity when displayed as a beautiful ornament in your home.”
As accessories, he makes custom stands out of granite for the shofar, while his wife makes shofar bags from chintz.
Prices for Harnett’s shofars range from $50 to $500, depending on the quality of the horn itself and the time spent making the shofar; shofars can be shipped, upon request. For more information, Harnett will soon have a new website, beharshofars.com.
Gil Lavieis a freelance correspondent, with articles published in the Jerusalem Post, Shalom Toronto and Tazpit News Agency. He has a master’s of global affairs from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
It’s the children, at first, that inspire awe, the infants now walking, the toddlers talking, the grade schoolers freshly combed and pressed, the high schoolers immense, the college students all but unrecognizable in their newfound sophistication. The brief span of 12 months has metamorphosed them all. They enter the sanctuary this Rosh Hashanah morning with an eye to audience and reunion, conscious, as at few other times, of their own growth and maturity, the oldest children flanking their parents with an air of independence, the slick-haired sons towering over balding fathers, the bejeweled daughters as carefully coifed and clothed as their mothers, all proud of what they have become.
Change is everywhere: new siblings sit wedged between the old, once-single adults arrive partnered, young wives enter expectant, older couples return fractured, cleaved in twain by death or divorce. Gravity exerts its inexorable pull upon the bowed backs of the oldest congregants; the cast of many a head has grown silver; chins have sprouted beards, foreheads become more deeply furrowed, eyes less acute.
I sit among my own altered children marveling at this tidal wave of transformation passing through our midst, hoisting some as it submerges others, bearing all of us, inexorably, toward eternity. From day to day, the alchemy of aging goes unremarked, even as our children molt before our eyes. We are not meant to be conscious of every instant of change, preferring not to be reminded of the mortality and uncertainty it implies. We seek instead a reassuring constancy, a routine that grounds and sustains us, though we know our time here is all too finite, that even as we feel most anchored, we are slowly, imperceptibly, drifting out to sea. The image in today’s mirror looks no different than the one that greeted us yesterday. But a snapshot of that face a year hence tells a very different tale.
And those snapshots are what we carry with us as we enter the synagogue these High Holy Days and stare in amazement at the undeniable alteration a single year has wrought upon the familiar landscape of family and friends. It is both exhilarating and alarming, and it, more than the prayers we have come together to recite, prepares us for these Days of Awe, this personal accounting of conduct and intention, impulse and resolve.
The prospect is daunting as we join our kinsfolk and face squarely into the probing light of conscience. There is no interlocutor but the self, and perhaps no other judge. We arraign ourselves before a court of inquiry, concede doubt and weakness, ask for certainty and strength, then render judgment, emerging chastened, cleansed, perhaps annealed. We give thanks for blessings and acknowledge the fragility of our contentments, knowing that tomorrow may challenge our every conviction, undermine our serenity, rob us of everything we hold dear.
And, as we sit side by side, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children, we discover portals to conciliation where perhaps only provocation and resistance prevailed. We rediscover tenderness and vulnerability and the myriad contradictions of our humanness. Against a backdrop of responsive prayer, we reflect upon the great challenges of parenting, on marriage’s call to remain emotionally committed, on the biblical injunction to honor our aging and increasingly infirm parents. We recite the liturgy of awe – admissions of frailty and failure, entreaties for greater understanding, for strength, for forgiveness. The gnawing hunger of Yom Kippur afternoon begins in the murmuring mouth of Rosh Hashanah, as we empty the casks of self-justification, discarding great stores of blind self-interest, and live for a time consuming nothing but the thought of our own imperfection.
And yet … while these Days of Awe clarify and distil us, they cannot sustain us. We are not cloistered contemplatives; we require a richer diet, one free of the astringent bite of continuous self-scrutiny. We need to live, to test our resolve. The gates will close, the great accounting will conclude for another year, and we will turn back to life renewed by these days of honest soul-searching, passing from assessment to action.
As the final song is sung, I turn to my family, wondering what has passed through their hearts during these hours of prayer. My son seems wrung out by so much stasis, eager to shed his confining clothes, grab a basketball and burst back into the light. My daughters yearn for the disembodied voices of friends, silver cellphones shimmering in their restless hands. My wife looks upon them with gratitude, awakening anew to the miracle of their presence in our lives, their youth, their beauty, their remarkable growth. She kisses each cheek, then takes my face in her hands and murmurs, “L’shana tova.”
May it be so for us all.
Steven Schnur, a member of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. This article was originally published in Reform Judaism magazine, and can be found at reformjudaism.org/these-days-awe. It is reprinted with permission.
Carrots represent the hope that Israel’s enemies will be “cut off,” or kept away. (photo by Stephen Ausmus / USARS via en.wikipedia.org)
Most Jews, religious or not, celebrate Passover, opening the holiday with a seder – fewer know that a seder is held on Rosh Hashanah, too. Being the year’s first meal, it gains higher importance in Jewish tradition and, therefore, should be special.
In the seder of Rosh Hashanah, a dedicated prayer is said, then a meal with symbolic foods is served, each food representing a different blessing for the people of Israel. Some of these foods have a unique prayer that is said prior to eating them. These foods differ slightly between communities, yet some are common, and are served on both religious and secular tables.
As some of the seder foods may stand for similar blessings, not all of them have been preserved among secular Jews. The most common traditional food served at Rosh Hashanah is an apple, dipped in honey; this custom represents a blessing for the year to be as sweet as honey. Gefilte fish is also served, usually having slightly sweet flavor, for the procreation of the people of Israel like the propagation of fish. On the gefilte fish, sliced carrots are placed, a symbol for Israel’s enemies to be “cut off.”
A fish head is displayed/served, symbolizing a blessing for the people of Israel to be the head and not the tail. This blessing has two meanings: (a) we will be the thinkers, the inventors; (b) we will gain leadership by moving forward, following our own will; not backwards, following other peoples’ will.
Sometimes, a beet or beet leaves are served for the removal of Israel’s enemies. A pomegranate is served, its many seeds symbolic of the many mitzvot that the Jewish people have and hope to continue to have.
Although linguistically not necessarily related historically, some of the foods are traditionally linked to their blessings by their Hebrew roots: the carrots placed on the gefilte fish are called gezer (pl. gzarim, root gzr) in Hebrew. The blessing of cutting off Israel’s enemies that is symbolized by the carrots makes use of the root gzr: “sheig az ru oyveynu,” “let our enemies be cut off.” The beet (leaves) is selek (root: slk); the related blessing: “she-is talku oyveynu ve-son’eynu,” “let our enemies and haters be gone,” is also represented by the same root slk, “remove.”
Other traditional foods either make use of a semantic feature of the original notion, or they have undergone a semantic shift to adapt to the holiday’s blessings. For example, we use the feature of quantity of the schools of fish for the parallel blessing: “shenifre ve-nirbe ke-dagim,” “let us procreate [literally: be fruitful and multiply] as fish.”
The fish head represents the brain, as well as the mind, which spiritually lies in the brain, and leadership, by being the head, the first in everything. This word gains a double meaning, as it appears in the name of the holiday, Rosh Hashanah, as well as in rishon, “first,” derived from rosh, “head.”
I wrote down some of these thoughts from my home shelter during the war. Let us hope to be blessed in the future with real rimonim (pomegranates’ fruit), and not rimone-yad (hand grenade). Let us bless southern Israeli fishermen to be able to continue fishing, and farmers to be able to continue selling their honey, carrots and beets, so that all of us can have a peaceful Rosh Hashanah seder. Happy New Year.
Nurit Dekelis an independent academic researcher of colloquial Israeli Hebrew, and principal linguist at NSC-Natural Speech Communication; author of Colloquial Israeli Hebrew: A Corpus-based Survey. She is based in southern Israel.
Fish is a traditional part of the Rosh Hashanah meal. Since Rosh Hashanah translates literally as “Head of the Year,” some people will eat the head of a fish as part of the holiday meal, or at least have one on their holiday table. Fish is also a symbol of fertility and prosperity.
Today, we will make a beautiful fish from Plasticine. While you won’t be able to eat it, you can add it to the table with other symbols of the holiday.
For this art project, you will need various colors of Plasticine or Play Doh.
1. First, we make the body of the fish. Roll a small ball from blue Plasticine.
2. Flatten the ball with the palm of your hand and flip onto the other side.
3. With the tip of your fingers, gently raise the edges on both sides.
4. Now make a top fin. You will need three small pieces of dark blue or purple Plasticine. Using a toothpick, attach the top fin to the body of the fish.
5. Use yellow Plasticine to make a bottom fin.
6. Add an orange fin on top of the yellow one.
7. With the help of a toothpick, make an indent for the mouth. Later, using pink Plasticine, create heart-shaped lips. Attach the lips to the body.
8. Using white and black Plasticine assemble an eye, and add it to what you’ve already put together.
9. Our fish is almost ready! We just need to add scales. Make a small green ball and flatten it. Add this newly formed circle to the body. Now, create many of these circles and decorate your fish with beautiful and colorful scales.
Instead of circles, you may create stripes or any other unique designs – and, of course, you can use any colors you want for any part of your fish. Art is a soul’s expression. Imagine, inspire, innovate!
Happy New Year to all young readers and their parents! Curly Orli and I wish you a year full of happiness and joy!
Lana Lagooncais a graphic designer, author and illustrator. At curlyorli.com, there are more free lessons, along with information about Curly Orli merchandise.
On the right track to finding a place to purchase shofarot. (photo from Steven Finkleman)
Heading down the B2 from Swakopmund to Windhoek, I could see by the road signage that this would be a prime location to search for the perfect shofar. As you can see from the signage, with each kudu, one would have two shofars to blow on Rosh Hashanah.
So, I went on the prowl for the perfect shofar in Namibia. When I was in Windhoek last spring and was at the airport awaiting my return flight to the big city of Johannesburg, I happened to notice a Chassidic man on my flight carrying several long, Yemenite-style shofarot. Although I didn’t speak to him at the time, it was clear that with an abundance of African antelope, Namibia could be a good source of shofarot for Jews all over the world.
Apparently, there are two types of shofarot that are kosher to use. The original was a ram’s horn, which is linked to the biblical account of the near sacrifice of Isaac. At the last moment, a ram tangled by its horns in the bush appeared to Isaac’s father, Abraham, and he sacrificed the animal instead of his son. The other style comes from Yemen, where there was an abundance of antelope, or more specifically kudu, from which the Jews in that country were able to make shofarot.
Both styles are used today, and indeed in my own synagogue sanctuary is a painting by Gertrude Zack of a rabbi blowing a Yemenite-style shofar. Whether there are still kudu in Yemen is unclear to me. Perhaps, it is too dangerous for Jews to fly into Sanaa looking for kudu horns. Therefore, why not come to the safe locale of Namibia, known among tourists as “Africa lite” for a safe supply of kudu-horn shofars.
I was fortunate to have a work project this April in Windhoek and, clearly, one of my main goals, besides work, of course, was to track down that supply of kudu horns. It sounded like a great article: “In search of the perfect shofar, direct from its source.”
I made contact with Zvi Gorelick of the Windhoek Jewish community, and visited the synagogue, now about 80 years old, took some great pictures and attended the Friday night service. Theirs is a small community, very diverse and welcoming. Indeed, the second Shabbat, I had arranged to lead the service in my Reform style, with lots of traditional and vibrant Shabbat songs, probably quite distinct from the South African Orthodox service that the congregation was used to. Indeed, after services, I was fortunate to be invited to Barbara and Alexandra’s home for Shabbat dinner. All were welcome to join.
Once there, I was able to ask Zvi the all-important question in order for me to continue my quest for the perfect shofar. I was directed to the Nakara Tannery in the North Industrial area.
The two-dollar cab ride took me directly to the factory and the factory shop. Trying to keep things low-key and not to come across as a camera-happy tourist snapping four million pictures, I kept calm as I checked out the warehouse and then the factory store. The warehouse was filled with hides of all kinds, the most distinctive being the piles and piles of Zebra hides. Quite a sight. And, we think in Canada, it’s cool to have a bearskin on the wall!
As I entered the factory store, I noticed some kudu horns on the ground, polished, and some of very gaudy colorations – blue, orange, red, etc. Obviously not suitable for a shofar.
Trying to play it cool, I asked the sales lady at the desk, Marie-Louise, if they sell vuvuzelas made of kudu horns. Do you remember all those horns at the World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa a few years ago? She replied in the affirmative, and as I stammered away asking for a kudu-horn sort of trumpet, she responded in her Afrikaans accent, and asked if I was interested in buying a shofar for Rosh Hashanah! I knew immediately that I was at the correct spot. I coolly ordered four, but subsequently placed an order for another three. Darn good price … perhaps I ought to import them. I wonder who is making the 10 times mark-up in North America!
I then asked to see the factory where the shofarot are made. Starting with raw skulls, the horns are removed, soaked in water to remove the central core, then polished, and finally the tip is cut off in order to turn it into a shofar. I took my usual million pictures of the workshop and the production line, and, of course, tested a few shofarot out.
As I packed up my multiple shofarot, I began to wonder what sort of grief the customs officials might give me with my suitcase of kudu horns. After all, I would be crossing multiple borders, into Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the United States and, finally, home to Canada. I’d tell them the truth, of course, that these are religious article; I was unlikely to run into any trouble. Right?
Steven Finkleman, originally from Winnipeg, is a retired pediatrician living in Kelowna. He travels extensively and often researches and visits remote Diaspora communities on his adventures.