Updated: Sep 27
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Ha Shana, is not in fact the biblical new year, but the Feast of Trumpets. One concept is about tradition, sweet things and pomegranates. The other seems rather more serious: the Kingship of God and the shofar call to repentance. But are these two parts of the one festival incompatible?
Jerusalem held a sweet atmosphere in her air during the ‘new year’ weekend of 15-17 September. The Sabbath and Erev Rosh Ha Shana (evening start to the holiday) candle lighting was early, at a few minutes after 18:00, so the streets became quiet as families gathered in their best clothes to usher in one of the sacred Feasts of the LORD.
It is traditional to eat gefilte fish, and also fish heads, to mark the ‘head’ of the year. There are extra blessings at the dinner table, to thank God for His sweet produce. It is traditional to dip apples in honey and wish one another a ‘sweet’ new year. At the gathering I attended, we added a blessing for a dish including pomegranate seeds. The delicate fruit is another tradition at Rosh Ha Shana, since the number of seeds is said to represent the 613 commands of God in the Torah (Five Books of Moses).
The weekend celebrations held a precious sense of unity. Israel has been so divided of late, with demonstrations and disruptions. Some say this is good for democracy, while others have held deep concerns that internal division could embolden Israel’s enemies. Many of the demonstration posters and placards have been in English, causing some to suspect a planned, media-attracting coup, aimed at the overthrow of yet another democratically-elected government here. Many prayers have been lifted up for internal peace and resolution of strife.
With Rosh Ha Shana ushering in the ‘Ten Days of Awe’, a time of introspection and reconciliation prior to the Day of Atonement, it is an opportunity to press ‘pause’ on the grievances, and to just be grateful for the many blessings and promises of God. The awe-inspiring sound of the shofar (ram's horn) can be heard in different locations, such as the Western Wall, and in congregations.
One community of Jewish believers in Messiah, together with many visiting tourists, heard the shofar played stunningly, during a Yom T'ruah (Day of Blowing Trumpets) service. It was a chance to really present ourselves afresh to the Lord in this new year season. Both Tenach (Older Testament) and New Testament passages referencing the shofar or trumpet, were read aloud in Hebrew, by different people, young and old. Welcoming people at the door was a smiling lady giving out little plastic bowls containing apples and honey.
The exact same psalm was spoken corporately at this service, as I had heard some young devout Israeli girls singing, as they sat in a friendship group on a special site on Mount Zion. It is special because it is the traditional site of the Lord’s supper, but also the place from which the second President of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, used to host fellow Jews, during the Jordanian occupation of the Old City. From their Mount Zion vantage point, the Jews filled with centuries of longing could see the Temple Mount. Not until the 1967 liberation of the city could they return to the Kotel (Western Wall) to pray.
At the Messianic service, congregants prayed this psalm aloud, before taking the customary communion elements to remember their Suffering Servant King:
“Lev tahor bara-li Elohim, ve ruach nachon chadesh be kirbi” (Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me).
You may know a simple song to these words. Well, it turns out they are actually a Rosh Ha Shana and Elul prayer! Psalm 51 is just a natural expression for the descendants of the Psalmist, during their penitent month (Elul the Hebrew month of seeking the King) of preparation for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). It was so special to hear the girls singing these familiar words in Hebrew, from such sincere and simple hearts, not in a building or under duress. They had chosen to find themselves a special place to sing to their Maker and Redeemer.
A serious business? Yes – a holy God. A sweet time? Definitely. The Fragrance of Messiah is all around.