Photo depicting a single slice of apple on a white plate with blue border and a small glass dish of golden honey.

Rosh Hashanah Reflection: Measuring and Celebrating Time

by Susan Davis

We live in a pluralistic community here in southeast Seattle. Even how we celebrate time varies.

According to the Gregorian (standard) calendar, the new year started on January 1, 2021. But the Ethiopian New Year starts Sept. 11 and the year will be 2013. Islam just celebrated New Year the second week of August and it’s now 1443. Chinese Lunar New Year was in February and it’s 4719. The Hindi New Year of 2078 happened in April. 

Some calendars are solar, or solar-lunar, while others are lunar based. You get the idea: Time is measured, explained, and observed differently around the world and, therefore, here in the South End, too.

My religious calendar is based on Jewish observances with a new year officially starting this week on 1 Tishri 5782 with Rosh Hashanah (New Year of the World). That is, 5782 years ago is when ancient sages determined the world began with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar, it doesn’t line up exactly with the standard calendar, leaving us to claim: “The holidays are early (or late) this year.”

Jewish people are busy with several holidays in the early fall. The biggest two, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are also called the High Holy Days or the Days of Awe, but there’s a total of six fall holidays that pretty much come one right after another. They make up a month of observances and celebrations with a few breaks in between. Your Jewish friends might excuse themselves from meetings, school, and parties at this time of year. 

Just like with Jan. 1 New Year resolutions, we assess who we are and strive to be better on Rosh Hashanah. Jews use a three-fold process to do this: Teshuvah (personal accounting), Tefillah (spiritual awakening), Tzedakah (responsibility for community justice). The idea is to go deep, very deep. 

Teshuvah translates as return. This is the practice of assessing ourselves and where we missed the mark. We ask ourselves: How can we improve who we are, ask people for forgiveness, and set on a better path? This is part of the practice leading up to Rosh Hashanah.

Tefillah means prayer. It’s a way to open the heart to G-d, community, and ourselves. The practice we do for our soul by saying prayers of thankfulness and declaring our personal, spiritual, and communal values about living an ethical life. When so much of everyday life throws us curveballs, this practice helps focus on the important aspects of life, like how to get back to the work of justice after being in survival mode during the pandemic.

Tzedakah is a bit more complex to translate, the closest English word is justice. Jews practicing tzedakah believe there is a clear responsibility to give back to the world, beyond just because it feels good. This can be seen as charity, in terms of money and time given back to the community, but must be done in the right frame of mind, without resentment. Thanks to the legacy of fellow South Ender Jane Deer-Hileman z”l and her tireless tzedakah leadership, many Seattle congregations participate in donating, sorting, and delivering to local food banks during the High Holy Days.

During most Jewish holidays — except for those where we fast — we eat traditional foods. On Rosh Hashanah, we traditionally enjoy the first sweet fruits of the season in hopes of a sweet year, such as apples dipped in honey, pomegranates, honey cake, sweet round challah (bread) with delicious spices. Recipes vary widely depending on the different regions and culinary heritage of our Jewish neighbors.

The fasting holiday of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is when our fate for the upcoming year is sealed and we close the Days of Awe with a 25-hour fast. We wear white clothing and no leather, dressing simply in order to avoid material goods so we can access the deepest part of our soul.

The seven-day holiday of Sukkot (Festival of Booths) is next. This ancient holiday carries many meanings and rituals because it’s a combination observance of harvest, pilgrimage, and the exodus. Jews built temporary booths to live in while attending to the fall harvest, traveling to the Temple in Jerusalem for three pilgrimage holidays, as well as during the exodus out of Egypt. Today, we commemorate those times by erecting a temporary dwelling embellished with decorations in which we enjoy festive meals. 

Two other holidays round out the month. The one of note is the celebration when we start reading the Torah (Bible) from the beginning again. Each week, a certain portion of the Torah is chanted. Now that the year is over and we’ve come to the end, we roll back the Torah scroll to the beginning. The Torah begins with our creation story of the world.

So if your Jewish friends have turned down invitations or asked for days off from work or school during these High Holy Days, you may ask your Jewish friends where they were or what they did. Better yet, you can simply wish us a Shana Tova (Happy New Year). 

To my fellow South Enders: May your 1443, 2013, 2021, 2078, 4719, 5782, and all the rest of the calendar years we celebrate, allow your eyes to recognize joy, your mind to evolve with new understanding, and your heart to expand to embrace deeper connections. And may you share these gifts with your South End neighbors, friends, and family.

Susan Davis is a South Seattle resident.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Edsel Little (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 license).

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