The Jewish High Holidays: New Year, Old Problems

This week's post comes to us from friend and colleague Matthew Spencer-Kociol.  Matthew is a graduate of the University of Utah in Middle East Studies and lives in Salt Lake City with his family. 

It's a celebration!

It's a celebration!

One big difference between Jewish Holidays and most other religious holidays (with the exception of Islam’s Ramadan) is that Jewish holidays can take days or even weeks to celebrate. This can seem overwhelming to non-Jews who are used to having one big holiday that, if they’re lucky, falls on a weekend. The last few weeks have seen a large number of these holidays, so let's take this time to learn a little more about them!

Many of the Jewish holidays occur back-to-back in the fall, and they’re called the High Holidays. The High Holidays should simply be a time of rejoicing and celebration for the Jewish people, but in Israel, they are not immune to the violence that is seemingly endemic to the region.

The first of these holidays is called Rosh Hashanah: or Head of the Year, and is the Jewish new year based on the Lunar Calendar in Jewish practice.  This holiday is celebrated with a wide variety of customs, and is the beginning of the High Holidays. Synagogue attendance is highly popular for the Jewish new year, but you have to buy your tickets in advance. Now you might be wondering about this, but while Christian and Catholic Churches raise money through Bazaars or weekly Tithings (handling money is not allowed on the Jewish Sabbath), Synagogues raise funds by selling tickets for major religious events and through annual memberships, both of which may be sliding scale. The blowing of the Shofar is a way of ushering in the New year, and often involves the ram’s horn, though the horn of other Kosher animals are often used such as the Cow. Yemeni Ram horns are highly prized for their size and sound.

If done properly the Shofar is both beautiful and haunting at the same time, and is evocative in a very biblical sense.  This is a great time to mention the Shemitah- there has been a conspiracy theory going around that Jewish New Years are often associated with biblical end times prophecy. Out in Utah, many of the Mormon faith stocked up on emergency supplies, expecting an impending economic disaster. Besides the Shofar, the prayer of Tashlich is most commonly performed on Rosh Hashanah. Tashlich prayer is the casting away of sins from the previous year. This is done in a rather creative manner. First, Jews will go find a running body of fresh water, like a river. Second, they will say the Tashlich prayer and contemplate on their sins or regrets. These sins are often “cast” into the river in the form of bread crumbs so the sins could be metaphorically consumed by fish (but in all likelihood, a goose might be eating your sins too!)

Food is a unique experience during Rosh Hashanah as well. Round foods are eaten, such as round braided Challah bread filled with delicious raisins to celebrate the roundness of the year ending and beginning. Bagels are great too, as they are also round. To celebrate the sweetness of a new year, sweet treats are often eaten, and the most popular of which is apples and honey.


Above, a large and round raisin Challah for Rosh Hashanah (courtesy of the author!)

Above, a large and round raisin Challah for Rosh Hashanah (courtesy of the author!)

Following Rosh Hashanah, a holiday known for its feasting, is the antonymous Yom Kippur. This is the day of atonement, a day when Jews fast. A common tradition is to donate food to the poor in the amount equivalent of what they had not eaten that day due to their fasting.  Some Orthodox Jews in Israel will often perform a ritual called Kapparot.  This involves a chicken being used to hold sins that they want to atone for and that is promptly slaughtered.  The freshly slaughtered bird is then donated to a needy family for food. However, this is a controversial practice. While some Jews consider this to be a merely a ritual slaughter and encourage it as a great way to celebrate the holiday, other Jews consider the practice to be not kosher, as the bird may be distressed by the ritual.  Lastly some Jews even consider the practice heretical and compare the ritual slaughter to animal sacrifice, which is forbidden in Judaism. 


The controversial practice of Kapparot (Courtesy  wikimedia )

The controversial practice of Kapparot (Courtesy wikimedia)

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, and extremely religious Jews in Israel will try to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque’s holy grounds.  This is because they see the Mosque’s foundation as having significant value to Jewish history sinceit was once a part of the old Temple of King Solomon. In Israel, there isn’t am established precedent of the separation of Church and state as we have in America.  Jews aren’t entitled to visit the Mosque to pray, because that can upset the fragile religious harmony in Jerusalem.  Israeli Security normally try their best to keep Jews from praying at the Aqsa Mosque. However, Jewish religious activity near this holy Muslim site can spark riots, and this is often the time that Palestinian Youth will stage angry protests and throw stones at religious Jews or at Israeli police, as has been recently reported in the news.

This year has been a particularly violent year at the Aqsa Mosque, and it is no small possibility that the coinciding of Yom Kippur with Eid Al-Adha could have caused increased tensions between the two religious communities in Jerusalem. Sadly, unlike in recent years, there has not been a strong campaign by Jewish And Muslim Leaders to promote tolerance during the two holidays. While it may seem to go without saying, the recent protests at Aqsa have far less to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, and more to do with religious tension during this time of the year.  


Palestinian Protesters barricade themselves inside the Aqsa Mosque (Courtesy  VOA news ) The High Holidays in Israel are a time often marked by clashes between Palestinian protesters and police.

Palestinian Protesters barricade themselves inside the Aqsa Mosque (Courtesy VOA news) The High Holidays in Israel are a time often marked by clashes between Palestinian protesters and police.

Sukkot is also known as the Festival of Booths, or the Feast of the Tabernacles. This holiday is a harvest festival but does have a biblical tie-in. It lasts for eight days and represents the temporary structures that Moses and his followers had built to camp in while wandering the desert.

Essentially, on Sukkot, Jews will build a temporary structure with a loosely thatched roof, three walls, and no floor foundation. In this temporary living structure, many Jews will eat their meals during the week long holiday. Some will even sleep in it, making for quite the outdoor experience! The Sukkah, as the structure itself is called, is supposed to remind you of being outside, and is supposed to expose you to the elements to some degree. This serves as a reminder to Jews of our relationship with the land and the wider world.

There’s a saying that if you are in a Sukkot, the roof must be built in such a way that while it may shade you from the sun, if it rains, you will get rain drops in your soup! So that said, while the walls are made of of thin wooden fencing or canvas material, the roof is often made of locally found branches.


The temporary structure Jews make and use on Sukkot ( wikimedia )

The temporary structure Jews make and use on Sukkot (wikimedia)

As Rosh Hashanah is a holiday marked by the blowing of the Shofar, Sukkot is distinguished by the four spices, including the Lulav and Etrog. The Etrog is basically an exotic, but not very juicy lemon, and the Lulav is a leafy palm frond. Those two and the other two species of plants (Myrtle and Willow leaves) are all held together in a bundle. In the ritual of waving the four spices, a prayer is uttered while the four spices are shaken in all four cardinal directions- North, South, East and West.


The Lulav and Etrog are the main parts of the Four Species used during Sukkot. (courtesy  BJSD )

The Lulav and Etrog are the main parts of the Four Species used during Sukkot. (courtesy BJSD)

For those who cannot build a Sukkah in their yard, Synagogues and Jewish organizations on college campuses will often host a Sukkah structure in their vicinity for all to enjoy. While most Jewish holidays accept non-Jewish people to attend and enjoy holiday events, Sukkot is most well known for being used as an interfaith activity. On Sukkot, many Jews will invite people of other faiths to come and share a meal in the booth. All are welcome to a Sukkot meal!


An interfaith meal and gathering in the Jewish Sukkah (courtesy  Texas Interfaith Center )

An interfaith meal and gathering in the Jewish Sukkah (courtesy Texas Interfaith Center)

While Sukkot may be a time to promote inclusiveness of people regardless of faith, this year Sukkot seems to be particularly marked by increased violence in Israel. There has been several shootings and stabbings resulting in several deaths in Israel and the West Bank during the holiday of Sukkot. There could be many reasons why this holiday season in Israel is marked with violence. Could it be the uptick of Israeli settlers visiting holy sites that a cause tensions with Muslim Palestinians? Or could it also be related to Mahmoud Abbas’s recent statement that the Palestinian Authority is no longer bound by the Oslo Agreement, thus giving a sort of unspoken green light to increases in violent protests and terrorist activities in the Palestinian Territories? The straight answer is most likely a combination of both, but whether Abbas’ recent statements are a reaction to recent violence in Israel/Palestine, or whether it is vice versa, could be as hard to resolve as a chicken-or-the-egg argument. 


(Courtesy  The Guardian : Abbas gave a speech at the U.N. Claiming he plans on giving up on Oslo.)

(Courtesy The Guardian: Abbas gave a speech at the U.N. Claiming he plans on giving up on Oslo.)

The last holiday comes after Sukkot and it's Simchat Torah. This holiday represents the beginning and end of the Torah. The year on the Jewish calendar is divided into weeks with Torah Portions. Basically the Torah is divided into about 54 Torah readings from beginning to end in correlation to the Hebrew Lunar calendar. For example, during the first week of the year, the Torah Portion is the very beginning of Genesis, or the part where God created the world in seven days. Then the portions go in chronological order until we reach Simchat Torah where Jews study the last part of the Torah.

And those are the high holidays, and then some! After that, we take a rest from all those Jewish activities, and we don’t do anything wild and crazy until Hanukkah, which is a fun one, and way less formal too!