Days Of Awe: Myth And Meaning

Rosh Hashanah began last night, with the new moon.

Translated from the Hebrew to “head of the year,” the  biblical name for the Jewish New Year is Yom Teruah, literally “day of shouting or blasting”. It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days, given by Moses in the book of Leviticus, that occur in the early autumn of the Northern Hemisphere. For an autumnal festival it is; replete with all the bounty of the Harvest. But it is much more than that.

Jews around the world, of every creed, gather at family dinners to celebrate the good things they have experienced in the previous year, and also to reflect on hopes and dreams for the coming year. But Rosh Hashanah is not only a  festive holiday; it is also a sobering and solemn time, a prelude to Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment, and the Holiest day of the Jewish Year.

Once a year, on that day, only a Kohen (a Jewish High Priest descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses), could enter the Holy of Holies, the Sanctuary in the Temple in Jerusalem, to light incense and attend to other rituals surrounding the mysterious Ark of the Covenant. 

Rosh Hashanah inaugurates these Days of Awe, ten days during which Jews reflect on their conduct, make amends for past wrongs, and set intentions to do better in the coming year.

In a world where instant reflection comes in the form of tweets, Facebook or Instagram posts, the idea of carving out time to think about your life and plan for the future is not topping the list for most people. Lives move so fast, we barely have time to catch our breath, let alone reflect and contemplate.

This morning I received an email from Marianne Williamson’s campaign. In it she writes: Religious holidays reflect universal themes found in all the great spiritual traditions. The Days of Awe are a meaningful concept for everyone. They are especially powerful and resonant for Americans now, reminding us to reflect on the deepest truths about our country, reconcile with the God of our understanding, and prepare ourselves for new beginnings.

Americans need to reflect deeply these days, about who we are as a nation and the larger purpose of a free society. We need to think about how we were created, where we’ve gotten it right as a country, where we’ve gotten it wrong, and our responsibility to right what is wrong and pave the way to a better future. We need a spirit of national atonement, in which we reconcile with our deepest principles.

I could not have said it better.  And so I decided to write today about the symbols of Rosh Hashanah — shofar, apples and honey, round challah with raisins, fish heads and pomegranates — and reflect on how these relate to the different layers of these Days of Awe.

On Rosh Hashanah, religious Jews blow a shofar, a ram’s horn, to announce the new year. Although the shofar is blown at other times (including at the end of the fast on Yom Kippur), and was blown much more regularly in antiquity, the image is now closely tied to Rosh Hashanah. The shofar is blown in the synagogue during the holiday.

Ashkenazi Jews dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah as they wish for a sweet New Year. Their practice probably dates to medieval France, as this was a time when the apples in that region were particularly sweet. Apples and honey are still one of the most universally recognizable symbols of Rosh Hashanah. Traditionally, European Jews bake their challahs (braided bread), for Rosh Hashanah in the round to represent the circularity of the calendar. They are studded with raisins, also for a sweet New Year.

Pomegranates too, are universally associated with Rosh Hashanah. There is a custom of eating a new fruit (or, at least, a fruit one has not tasted in a long time) on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, and often that fruit is pomegranate, which has a short season. The pomegranate is also a symbol of Rosh Hashanah because the abundance of seeds can represent prosperity or a desire to perform many mitzvahs (good deeds) in the coming year. A Holy fruit in Judaism, golden pomegranates decorated the hem of the Kohen’s (High Priest), white linen robe.

Jews of both Mizrahi and Sephardic descent will have Rosh Hashanah seders and eat a large array of symbolic foods, including pumpkins, leeks, beets, and a fish head. In fact, when it comes to Rosh Hashanah, families of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin — like some of mine— have a secret to share with the rest of the (Ashkenazi), Jewish world: a New Year far beyond apples dipped in honey! Of special interest I suspect for the Crypto Jews among us. 

On the first night of the holiday, a special ceremony is held at home during which blessings are recited over a variety of foods that symbolize wishes for the year ahead. The blessings in this ritual all ask for divine gifts of bounty, strength, and peace. The ritual has come to be known as a seder (order) because the blessings are recited in a specific order, but Ironically, and typical of Jewish nature, that order varies according to custom and community.

The origins of the ritual dates back to the Babylonian Talmud  where the scholar, Abaye discusses omens that carry significance, and suggests that at the beginning of each new year, people should make a habit of eating the following foods that grew in profusion (around the Mediterranean), and so symbolize prosperity: pumpkin, a bean-like vegetable called rubia, leeks, beets, and dates.

The dining table has long served as the altar of Jewish life. After the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, where the Al Aqsa Mosque now stands, Jews were forbidden (by the rabbis in the Galilee and at the Babylonian academies), to make animal sacrifices “until the Messiah came and returned them to Zion,” but food remained part of religious ritual, albeit at the dining table.

Like the Passover seder, where foods like bitter herbs and matzoh symbolize suffering and freedom, at the Rosh Hashanah seder the foods we eat also become vessels for deeper meaning; each food symbolizes a wish for the coming year, and before each food is eaten, there is a special blessing to recite. With each blessing, the mundane aspect of food is elevated with a sense of holiness, nostalgia and a good measure of humor.

My kitchen during this season resembles Abaye’s list in the Talmud; juicy, red-skinned pomegranates, sticky-sweet dates, pumpkins, leeks, scallions, green beans, spinach; and crisp apples and beets of course with the greens. Carrots too. If you are a North African/ Moroccan or Yemenite Jew, carrot salad will be on the menu.

The seder traditionally begins with a series of biblical verses invoking physical and spiritual blessings. They are repeated a prescribed number of times for mystical reasons. In Sephardic tradition the verses are followed by a piyyut, a religious poem, written by Abraham Hazzan Girondi in 13th-century Spain. Each verse of the poem has a chorus that declares, Tikhleh shanah ve-killeloteha! Let the year end with all its curses! The last line reflects a change in tone: Tahel shanah u-virkhoteha! Let the new year begin with all its blessings!

Then, after breaking bread, come the blessings over the other food. The seder originally called for a fish or sheep’s head to symbolize our wish to be heads, not tails; leaders, not followers. The sheep’s head (the brains were removed and cooked) also served as a reminder of the ram that saved Isaac’s life; we recite the story of the binding of Isaac on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. 

The binding of Isaac has come to represent the Jew’s devotion to God, and on Rosh Hashanah, when the world “trembles in judgment before God,” we evoke the binding of Isaac by sounding the horn of a ram (reminiscent of the ram which replaced Isaac as an offering), as if to say, if we have no other merit, remember Abraham’s deed, remember how the first Jew bound all succeeding generations of Jews in a covenant of self-sacrifice to God. The seder ends with the Grace After Meals, with its acknowledgment of God as the source of all food.

My ancestors left Sepharad (Spain and Portugal), and Babylonia centuries ago, but Sepharad and the lands of the Levant never left them. Our lives were infused with their sumptuous tastes and smells, with the music, culture, social norms and  memory of a glorious golden age. Those fabled lands were simultaneously remote and intimately close, both exotic and familiar.

Who could have anticipated that region from which my ancestors came, would become known around the world as a place of utter misery and fear? From Babylon (Iraq), to Gaza and beyond, decades of relentless violence, of terrorism and war, have created a humanitarian nightmare and the single largest refugee crisis in the world. Smuggled in boats, hidden in the boots of cars, or even walking hundreds of miles to safety, more people than ever before are desperately seeking to rebuild a life somewhere, anywhere their children will have a future.

For all Jews everywhere,the images of refugees hits painfully close to home. They are haunting reminders of the hardships that many of our own families endured while seeking freedom from tyranny. Here in America, Jews have in a few short generations, risen to the very top of society but most remember the stories of how they got here. But it is more than just human determination and resilience that defines our journeys through two Diasporas and centuries of persecution; it is also the opportunities that were available to us in the country, or countries along the way. 

If the United States had not welcomed them, where would our families be today? The opportunity to live free from persecution enabled them to not simply survive, but to flourish and become part of the remarkable diversity of this country. The Jewish experience bears witness to the importance of nations keeping their doors open to refugees. Just as Abraham was known for his incredible hospitality; his tent was left open on all four sides. He welcomed the stranger.

Only a few generations after my own family was welcomed into this country, America is busy building walls and bolting the doors to those who seek safety, asylum and the opportunity for a new life. As this new year progresses, will we remember the plight of contemporary refugees desperately knocking at the door as we ask God to open the heavenly gates to our prayers? 

The wish for God’s good will and favor extends into the Sephardic High Holiday poem (piyyut), by Judah Samuel Abbas (13th-century Spain) called Et Sha’arei Ratzon (Gates of Favor.) This poem is a dramatic and emotional re-telling of the story of the binding of Isaac. May this beautiful  poem awaken in us a resolve to take action on the behalf of refugees fleeing war torn countries everywhere. The need for global leadership is dire, but with winter fast approaching and with far too many refugees stranded in often inhumane situations, we can’t wait for leaders to affect change, it’s up to each of us to do more. 

So after we light our candles, as we gather around the table with family and friends, raising our glasses (the wine, I almost forgot the wine!) and toasting to a sweet New Year, let us reflect on the flickering candlelight, and remember that just one lit candle banishes the darkness.

As Marianne Williamson notes in her missive today: Americans need to reflect deeply these days, about who we are as a nation and the larger purpose of a free society.

Tahel shanah u’virkhoteha! L’ Shana Tova! Let the new year begin with all its blessings. 


You can listen to Et Sha’arei Ratzon” (“As the Gates of Favor Open”) if you visit Congregation Shearith Israel’s site linked below. ( At this hour, when the gates of favour wilt open, on this day, when I stretch forth my hands to thee, O God! do thou remember me, on this day of trial, the offering father, the son whom he bound, and the altar.)

et shaarei ratzon

For more information (and for the specific blessings), on the Sephardic Rosh Hashanah Seder visit linked below


Chabad Taos will have a public Shofar blowing on the Plaza today. Please visit their site for details on that and all High Holiday Services.


All images Stock Files