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Three Rabbis & Rosh Hashana: Local Jewish leaders talk High Holy Days

When many people think about the Jewish High Holy Days and Rosh Hashana, apples and honey often come to mind.

The apples and honey are traditionally eaten by members of the Jewish community during Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, to symbolize the hope for a "sweet New Year." The Hilgh Holy Days are the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur -- the Day of Atonement and the most sacred Jewish holiday.

There are some other aspects of the High Holy Days that people often wonder about.

Some ask questions of the spiritual leaders of Oklahoma City's Jewish community,  who are adept at answering queries about this important time of the year.  

As they prepared for Rosh Hashana, which begins at sundown Sunday, the rabbis took the time to discuss some of the questions non-Jews often ask about the High Holy Days and some other things they want the community-at-large to know:

Rabbi Vered Harris, spiritual leader of Temple B'nai Israel: A Christian minister once told me that having Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur so close together is like how it would be for Christians if Christmas and Easter were just 10 days apart –- it’s a very spiritually intense time of year -- spiritually, intellectually and physically.

Rabbi Vered Harris
Rabbi Vered Harris

Spiritually because we are putting great effort into repairing relationships and connecting with God. Intellectually because the great questions of faith arise at this time: forgiveness, God’s role in our lives, and how we live our religious tenets. Physically because of how close the holidays are, the requirements to take off of work and school for them, and of course the fast of Yom Kippur.

At the end of the High Holy Days, a person can feel renewed and uplifted, and ready to begin the cycle of the year again. In fact, just a few days after Yom Kippur, we welcome the festival of Sukkot, and we conclude Sukkot with the holiday of Simchat Torah. It is a lot of rejoicing and the potential to truly celebrate the beauty of our heritage.

Rabbi Ovadia Goldman, spiritual leader of Chabad Jewish Center of Greater Oklahoma City: One of the main questions that is always asked is what is particular about the High Holy Days, both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Generally speaking, on the Gregorian calendar, the regular calendar we follow, the New Year day is pretty much an arbitrary day. It could have been any other day had we set up the calendar in any other way. It's perhaps not the Jewish New Year, it's the New Year of the world. We mark the New Year as the one time of year the day the world was created comes around again. The New Year is not just an arbitrary day. It's a day where we once again revisit the energies and the miracles and the amazing creative powers that were brought to bear by God to bring this world into being and to be able to connect back from a Jewish perspective 5,776 years, all the way back, year after year, to that very date. The (holiday) services are much longer,  you'll be spending anywhere from four to six hours in prayer, in very reflective prayer, very re-energizing prayer, very invigorating and powerful and uplifting prayer. This is very, very telling about what this celebration of the New Year is all about.  It's not "Hey 2015!," it's a celebration of God continuing to give energy into this world, and continuing to breathe it into being and once again that very day we get to reconnect to that energy going back to that first time when God created mankind.  

Rabbi Ovadia Goldman
Rabbi Ovadia Goldman
  

I do want to mention that this year Yom Kippur is going to be connected to the 70th anniversary of the world using an atomic weapon and there's a lot of talk about the nuclear deal with Iran. Many people have a lot of different views on that. Everybody agrees that the whole idea that we need to make a deal with Iran is in itself not the most comfortable, not the best. Even the president and others are saying it's the best deal we could have. I think that atomic energy and nuclear energy is not just a negative idea but a concept that is amazing and I think this year, as we celebrate the New Year, we should be focusing tremendously on the positive message of nuclear energy and that is that a tiny little matter, a tiny atom, when it splits, it can release and give off such great energy that can be harnessed in powerful, positive ways. During the New Year ,we get reflective and sometimes we think of ourselves as these little tiny beings and what can we do and what can our little acts accomplish. I think the nuclear age ushers in a whole new idea of how powerful each one of us is, made up of so many atoms. -- how very powerful each one of our acts can and should be -- in a positive way.  I think it's important at this time of year during our high holidays that we bring forth this idea that if even a small atom has so much energy, how much more so every human being and every act they do -- how powerful that can be.   

Rabbi Abby Jacobson, spiritual leader of Emanuel Synagogue: One really common question about the High Holy Days is where does it appear in the Bible, and the answer is not very often. It's mentioned very offhandedly. It's mentioned in Leviticus 23:24, for instance. There tends to be a belief that Judaism today looks exactly as it appears in the Bible and it can't for several reasons -- because we've had thousands of years and history of religious development. The Hebrew Bible is not intended to be a complete rule book for every topic for every occasion. We believe there has to be a set of rituals and laws and traditions that are not passed through the written text but through oral tradition or oral law because it's passed experientially. We know our ancestors had experiences and cultural context that we don't have so we know that they were passing down information to us experientially,  not saying it but just living it. 

Rabbi Abby Jacobson
Rabbi Abby Jacobson

Another question I get is if it says in the Bible it (Rosh Hashana) is the seventh month, why do you call it the 'New Year'? The reason is because the Jewish calendar changed to more closely align with the Babylonian calendar, which starts in the fall. Also, there are four days of New  Year in the Jewish calendar. For example, Passover is a New Year. Rosh Hashana is the New Year that celebrates the beginning of the year and the celebration of all creation.

Many people ask questions about the shofar which is blown on Rosh Hashana. Most people translate the shofar to mean "ram's horn." They ask where do you get the really long horn if it is really a ram's horn? The answer is many of the shofars that are blown now do not come from rams. They come from a kudu, which is an animal living in Africa. The literal translation of shofar is "one of the types of horns that Jews are allowed to blow." This means it has to be from a a kosher animal that we are allowed to eat and it has to be a horn that falls off naturally so that the animal is not harmed or one that an animal has lost in a different way, like during a fight during mating season.  

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Look for more stories on Rosh Hashana and the High Holy Days in The Oklahoman and online on the Religion & Values blog in the coming days.

Carla Hinton

Religion Editor

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Carla Hinton

Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide... Read more ›

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