What is Rosh Hashanah?

The ram reminds Jews of the Akeda (the Binding of Isaac).(Photo: Unsplash/Abby Lim)

More than 2,000 years ago there was a discussion among Jewish scholars. When is the actual birthday of the world? Is it in the Hebrew spring month of Nissan, when the Jewish people celebrate their going out of Egypt and make their tortuous way to the Promised Land of Israel? Or is it in autumn, in the Fall of the year, after the mournful fast of Tisha B'Av, followed by the contemplative month of Elul, which is just ending for us?

Judaism teaches us to value the whole of humanity, every single human being, whatever their beliefs, or non-beliefs, caste, creed, ethnicity, colour, tribe or whatever to the extent that the universalist autumn festival of Rosh Hashanah, 'The Head of the Year', is privileged over our own Jewish exodus from straitened circumstances and slavery in Egypt, as the true start of the year, for Jews and for everyone else.

This birthday is now coming up, and this year falls on the night of September 6, ending on the night of September 8. And of course, as readers will know from previous postings, the birthday of the entire world coincides this year with the Shemitta Year, when the land is also given a rest from labour. What an amazing concept this is, based as it is in Jewish teachings gleaned from the Hebrew Bible.

The Exodus story is very dear to us Jews, given that wherever we've been settled, within half a generation or so, we have had to flee. And this year has seen the Exodus of countless friends, the backbone of the community, from my own area of north Manchester. These fine people no longer think it is possible for us to be 'a light unto the nations' in the UK, and have left for a new and less febrile life in our Jewish homeland of Israel, where at least they can be themselves.

But despite this salient fact, when it comes to birthdays, Rosh Hashanah, the Head of the Year, comes first, and, in addition also has its special sounds.

When my daughter contacted me yesterday from the car in Israel (where else?) en route from the holy city of Tzfat in the north to Jerusalem in the centre, after she had pointed out the spot where the Hebrew prophet, Habbakuk, is buried, I asked 'What are you doing for Rosh Hashana?' By which I meant 'where will you be, and with whom will you be celebrating the meals?' The answer though was: 'We'll be blowing the shofar!'

She was right and had pinpointed the most important aspect of the New Year for Jews – not food, not drink, but the eery, scary sound of the shofar.

What is a shofar exactly? Well, it is usually a ram's horn – other kosher animals are also OK - but the ram reminds us of the Akeda (the Binding of Isaac) when, in Genesis 22, Abraham in the end did not have to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, but a ram was found instead, and Isaac went free. In fact, the Midrash states that the ram is so important to the story that he was one of the entities created before creation itself. In other words, it was known that the ram would be needed far into the future, and therefore he was there even before time itself. And that is why we commemorate the whole occasion by using a ram's horn, as well as reading the story of the Akeda (the binding of Isaac).

In 1983, Israel's greatest poet of the later 20th century, Yehuda Amichai (originally, like so many others, a refugee from Germany) wrote a humorous poem about this state of affairs, which you can read here.

Amichai's work was translated by his good friend Ted Hughes, who replaced our own poet laureate, John Betjeman in that role in 1984, a year after the publication in Hebrew of Amichai's 'The Real Hero'. The 'real hero' is not Abraham, not Isaac, not even G-d, but the ram, who knew he was preordained to replace Isaac at the Akeda. Of course, it is obvious to anyone Jewish that the 'ram' is a metaphor for the Jewish people, with his 'curly wool and his human eyes'.

Referring to the Shoah and how the Nazis and their aiders and abettors didn't waste any human part that was left from the burned remains of the ovens, the poet continues that 'they made those horns into shofars when he [the ram/Jew] was slaughtered, to sound their battle cries or to blare out their obscene joy.'

So, by contrast, when we, the Jewish people, blow the shofar on Rosh Hasahanah, 'the head of the year', we recall the piercing sound that was there before words could be articulated. Or when some deeds are so heinous that they go beyond words, and only the sound is left. The piercing cry out to G-d signifies 'Why? Why did you let this happen to the sheep that were following you so faithfully in their Torah? The cream of our community were massacred in the Shoah? Why did You let this happen?' And there is no answer.

Or how it was put by another great poet of the 20th century, the Romanian survivor, Paul Célan, who knew Amichai, and actually met him in Jerusalem just after the Six Day War in June 1967:

'Shofar Place

Deep in the glowing


At torch height,

In the time hole:

Hear deep in

With your mouth'

But maybe there is a way out after all.

If you look at the shape of the shofar, it is blown through its narrow end, with the sound exiting through the wider end. Jewish scholars have discussed the meaning of this design and some have concluded that the original Exodus took us out of our straitened circumstances in Egypt (which itself – Mitzrayim - means 'straits' in Hebrew), so the children of Israel started their life's journey through trouble and travail, only to end up in the Promised Land and all that signifies.

How did they manage to do this through thick and thin? It was when they had managed to transcend their own suffering through worship of G-d and the adherence to G-d's Torah and mitzvoth, which includes the Jewish mission as an example to others. And this wider mission is symbolized by the wider end of the shofar, through which the sounds exit on Rosh Hashana, 100 of them in all.

This blog by a contemporary Jewish head teacher in London says it all: "Every human being is liable to err, and the same goes for groups of people too. One particularly common fault is excessive self-regard and blindness to the perspective of others. This is why all of us need critical friends to bring us down to earth from time to time with a well-placed critical word.... It feels good to be immune from criticisms, but it isn't good for you....As a result of shutting out critique, [we tend to] 'become tone-deaf, [lose] contact with reality, and ... cannot see [ourselves] through the eyes of others."

The shofar sound acts as a permanent critical friend, who always has our best interests at heart, and is able to warn us when we are going off the path. Tragically, it tends to be the successful and famous, the powerful and the influential, who tend not to have a critical friend, or if they do, they tend not to heed them. Big, big mistake.

If there is to be a New Year resolution for all, I suggest that we all try and find a critical friend in our lives who, from one Rosh Hashana to the next, will be there to help and support us when we falter, because we are all frail human beings and 'to err is human' after all.

As we enter the Jewish year of 5782, Shana Tova - or 'good year' - to everyone, wherever you are.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.