This year Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) will be celebrated at the end of September, ushering in the year 5783 (according to the traditional Jewish biblical calculation).
Superficially there appear to be similarities between the celebrations of the secular and Jewish new years. Folks get together with others to eat, drink and share good times. We reflect on the year that has passed and look ahead to the one to come. Noise makers are blown, though on Rosh Hashanah it’s a Shofar (ram’s horn). We even talk about making changes in the new year. Yet, notwithstanding these similarities, it is all too apparent that these celebrations are radically different.
Joy is a part of both, but the secular new year tends to be celebrated with frivolity, fun and often excess, while the Jewish New Year has a sense of gravitas and deep satisfaction. New Year’s Eve is spent drinking champagne and carousing with friends and strangers; ending with a countdown focused on the ending year. Rosh Hashanah eve is traditionally spent at synagogue worship before sitting down amongst family and friends around a dinner table filled with sacred rituals, such as Kiddush (sanctifying the Festival with a benediction over wine, often sweet concord grape), the Motzi blessing (over round, crown-shaped Challah bread, acknowledging God as the source of all sustenance), and the dipping of apple slices into honey (rather than hors d’oeuvres into sauces) as a wish for a sweet new year.
The secular New Year’s Day is characterized by sitting back at home and watching others march in parades or play college football while we drink beer and eat pizza or barbecue. Rosh Hashanah day is a time of personal involvement marked by worship at hours-long services (which praise the creator of the universe and encourage personal soul searching), followed by more festive dining with family and friends, before symbolically emphasizing our resolve to cast our sins away through the Tashlich ritual of tossing pieces of bread into a natural body of water.
The most sobering tradition of the secular New Year is that of a New Year’s resolution which typically involves the good intention to improve a single aspect of our lives. In contrast, Rosh Hashanah involves beginning the process of doing Teshuvah (repentance) which culminates ten days later on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and concerns striving to make ourselves better human beings who live ever more moral and holy lives.
I do enjoy a sip of bubbly and a spirited countdown followed the next day by watching the Tournament of Roses Parade and some college football. This traditional way of celebrating the secular New Year is a little frivolous, but so what? This New Year doesn’t claim to be anything more than a somewhat randomly chosen day to mark the earth’s circuit around the sun.
As the anniversary of the creation of humanity and completion of the world on Genesis’ sixth day of creation, the traditional way of observing Rosh Hashanah requires more. It reminds us of our place in the divine scheme and seeks introspective soul searching as we renew our commitment to God’s plan. Even the blowing of the Shofar requires skill and training to awaken us to Teshuvah and God’s majesty, unlike New Year’s Eve kazoo-style noisemakers intended to be just a bit of ephemeral fun.
We all know the old adage, “with great effort comes great reward.” Not everyone needs to be Jewish, but we all can learn from each other’s traditions. Perhaps the Jewish New Year can teach the value of setting aside dedicated time each year to remind ourselves of reinvesting in the deep values of our own traditions, with the faith that they will bring us a more blessed life.