Sept. 9 marks the beginning of the three-day Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It’s a time when connections are strengthened, when Jews think about how ties bind them to others in Jewish society and to the environment sustaining that society, says Michael Schwartz.
“New Year’s in a secular culture is just ‘get drunk and dance,’ pure celebration,” says Schwartz, a long-time member of Vancouver’s Jewish community and director of community engagement at the Jewish Museum and Archive of British Columbia. In the Jewish New Year, by contrast, “there’s a thread of environmentalism, of social justice.”
The New Year is a great time to consider how the next year can be better, says Schwartz.
A month of holidays
Rosh Hashanah marks the start of a full September of Jewish holidays, Schwartz continues. Ten days after Rosh Hashanah, Vancouver’s Jews will celebrate Yom Kippur, the biggest celebration in the Jewish calendar, while, later, Jews have Sukkot, the harvest festival and a big community feast. The whole month is a time when social ties in the Jewish community are reinforced, but the ten days between the New Year and Yom Kippur are special.
“You’re supposed to be going through this period of reflection,” Schwartz says. “If you feel you’ve wronged someone or things ended on a sour note, then you have to reach out and try to smooth the waters because you’re not allowed to come before God until you’ve made your peace with the humans in this world.”
During Rosh Hashanah’s religious service, members of the congregation gather to pray and blow the shofar, a ram’s horn that was once used as a tool for village-to-village communication.
“It’s made exactly the way they did it 3000 years ago,” marvels Schwartz. “You can imagine the messenger of the community going up to the hilltop and blowing this horn that would have echoed for miles.”
These days the whole community joins in. “Members of the congregation will go up to the bimah, the pulpit. Most everyone receives a shofar for their Bar Mitzvah,” says Schwartz. “It’ll start with people blasting and one by one they’ll drop off until there’s two people going head to head. Last year the rabbi’s son who’s eight was the last one standing, still going after a guy who’s a professional musician had faded out. It’s fun.”
Apples in honey
The ram’s horn is significant for another reason, Schwartz says. It’s made from an animal, signifying the link Jewish people feel with nature. “In the very earliest days, Jewish society was agrarian,” Schwartz explains. “It was very connected to the land. It works nicely to have Rosh Hashanah in the fall, because it does feel with the weather and the environment, like an ending and a beginning. Summer’s coming to a close. We’re entering into the fall, an inside time, a reflective time.”
As a celebration of their connection with the earth, Jews at Rosh Hashanah eat treats made from natural products, apples with honey and challah. “Apples in honey bring about a sweet new year,” says Schwartz. “Apples are in season and honey is from bees, from nature. We’re the stewards of this land. If we do a good job, we get to have sweet things, like honey.”
The eating of challah, or egg bread, is important both for reasons of the community and the environment. “Part of the meaning is that God gives us wheat, but we can’t do anything with it without our labour,” Schwartz comments. “Grain to bread requires people, requires us to use our hands [together].”
But challah is also a present from the earth. “[It]’s symbolic of our general relationship to the world. We’re given this beautiful blue ball with all of its treasures, but we’re responsible for it.”