Monday, September 22, 2014

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 29, Tishrei 1,2 and 3: Tikkun Olam, Rosh Hashanah. Shofar and Mazon (Feeding the Hungry)

Here are four more from our Top 40 countdown to get us through the holiday and Shabbat:

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 29 -  Tikkun Olam

Repair of the world - a notion that has become a catchword for social action in contemporary Judaism.  It comes from the Alenu prayer, which speaks of our desire that God fix, or correct, the world to become a Divine Kingdom.  But it was the medieval Kabbalists who took this notion and applied it to us, stating that human beings are designated with the divine task of world repair - and that in fact it is God who is shattered.  In Lurianic Kabbala, we are charged with picking up and reassembling the pieces of a grand cosmic mess.  Read about this complex concept here and its implications for liberal Judaism here.

Judaism's Top 40: Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - History of Rosh Hashanah

In fact, the ancient Hebrews probably had no concept of when the year started at all. Nor did they give the months names: the Torah merely enumerating them - "the first month", "the seventh month."
Nowadays we celebrate Rosh Hashanah on the first day of the fall month of Tishrei. But in biblical times, that period was explicitly called "the seventh month". During the First Temple period (8th to mid-6th century BCE), the year began in the spring, on the first day of Nisan.

Also, when listing the holidays, the Bible always starts with the spring holiday of Passover, in the seventh month - Nisan.

Just because the ancient Hebraic year started on the first of Nisan doesn’t mean that day was marked in any special way. What was cause for celebration, the Bible tells us, was the new moon each month - that is, the first of the month. By "celebration," we mean that more animals were sacrificed at the Temple than usual. The new moon of Nisan was not marked differently. From what we know about the Israelite’s Canaanite neighbors, they didn’t pay any attention to the "new year" either.

On the other hand, the first of Tishrei, celebrated as Rosh Hashanah nowadays, is mentioned as a holiday - albeit a very minor one. It is in no way a celebration of the "new year." Quite the contrary. Leviticus (23:24) says regarding that first day of Tishrei: “In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall ye have a Sabbath [as in "day of rest"], a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation” (23:24).

The Bible does not list any special practices for the holiday beyond blowing trumpets and sacrificing some animals, though fewer than were sacrificed on the two major holidays - Passover and Sukkot. No specific reason is given for the blowing of the trumpets, nor are we told what we are supposed to remember.
It is possible that a deeper significance of the first of Tishrei has been lost in time. Alternatively, it is possible that the day was marked by blowing trumpets and messengers going out to the countryside just to remind the Israelites that Sukkot would be coming in two weeks, and they had that much time to come to Jerusalem with their tithes and sacrifices.

If so, that mean that the 1st of Tishrei, venerated today as the Jewish New Year, was nothing more than a satellite of the main event, Sukkot, as were Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret in ancient times.
The first day of Tishrei does have one other significance we do know of, based on the Book of Ezekiel. That prophet, at the very end of the First Temple period, prescribes that the Temple should be purified (naturally using the blood of a bullock, what else?) on the first of Tishrei.

Elsewhere the Bible says to purify the Temple's purification ahead of Sukkot on Yom Kippur, which is on the 10th day of Tishrei.

Ezekiel doesn’t mention Yom Kippur at all. But he does have a comparable purification rite on the first of Nisan, two weeks before Passover, in the version of his book preserved in the Greek translation called the Septuagint.

Ezekiel is also the first to use the phrase “Rosh Hashanah” (40:1), though for him it clearly does not refer to any holiday, rather just the beginning of the year.

Jewish months? Not exactly...

When and how did the months get names?

We don’t know what the religious life of the Jews was like during the Babylonian exile. But we do know that by the time the Jews returned to Israel, and at the beginning of the Second Temple period (516 BCE), Jewish religious practices had profoundly changed compared with the pre-exile era.

For one, the names of the months that we use to this very day are the Babylonian names. Tishrei for example is a Babylonian month whose name derives from the Akkadian word tishritu - “beginning.”
In addition, the Babylonians took their New Year’s Day celebrations very seriously. They called the holiday Akitu (from the Sumerian word for barley) and Resh Shattim, the Akkadian equivalent of the Hebrew Rosh Hashanah. This was celebrated twice a year, at the beginning of Tishrei and the beginning of Nisan, and lasted for 12 days.

We may postulate that Jews absorbed their veneration for the New Year from the Babylonian example. But it was not immediately apparent upon their return - the Jewish rituals developed over centuries.

It isn’t really clear when Rosh Hashanah began to be celebrated as a holiday in its own right, though clearly it was during the time of the Second Temple. All we can say for sure is that books written during this period, such as the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Maccabees, or the Dead Sea Scrolls, don’t mention any "Rosh Hashanah."

We first hear about it in the early rabbinic literature in the Mishnah and the Tosefta, both redacted at about 200 CE, and both having a tractate called Rosh Hashanah, dealing with the holiday and issues related to the calendar. It is in these texts that we first have elaboration on the importance of the holiday and its traditions.

For example, in the Mishnah we learn that the world was created on the first of Tishrei, though there is a minority opinion that it was on the first of Nisan.

It is in the Mishnah that we are first introduced to the main theme of the holiday, that of judgment: “On Rosh Hashanah all human beings pass before him [God] as sheep before a shepherd” (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 2).

This theme is elaborated upon in the Talmud, where we find Rabbi Kruspedai of 3rd century Palestine quoting his teacher Rabbi Johanan as saying: “Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: One for the utterly wicked, one for the wholly good, and one for the average class of people. The wholly righteous are at once inscribed, and life is decreed for them; the entirely wicked are at once inscribed, and destruction destined for them; the average class is held in the balance from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they prove themselves worthy they are inscribed for life, if not they are inscribed for destruction.” (15b)
The days in which the fate of the intermediate class stands in the balance have been known since the mid-14th century as “The Days of Awe.”

Judaism's Top 40: Rosh Hashanah Day 2: The shofar and it’s history

As Ha’aretz states:   The liturgy of the Rosh Hashanah service prescribed during the rabbinic age, deals with three main themes: The kingship of God, which is borrowed from the Babylonian Akidu where kingship (of the king) was a major theme; recital of God’s great deeds; and blowing a musical instrument.

Regarding that musical instrument, technically, the Bible doesn’t say what exactly is to be blown. It is the Mishnah that first tells us this should be a shofar, a horn, usually of a ram, though it could alternatively come from an antelope or other horned beast.

Well before the Talmud was redacted in 500 CE, a variety of traditions regarding exactly how and when the Shofar was to be blown arose in the different Jewish communities. Not knowing which was correct, the rabbis decided that all the different traditions should be incorporated.

Thus on Rosh Hashanah we have the T'qiah (a long blow), the sh'varim (three consecutive blows), and the teruah (nine fast blasts separated into three groups of three), all blown in different sequences at different stages of the day. These added up to 90 blasts, which were rounded up to the 100 blown today.

Judaism's Top 40: Elul 3: Mazon - Feeding the Hungry

The Religious Action Center puts it this way:  The Torah and Jewish tradition are explicit in commanding that we feed the hungry. "And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus (23:22)" In Isaiah 58:7, God commands us to "share [our] bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into [our] house."  Deuteronomy 15:7-10 elaborates on our commitment to helping the hunger person amongst us. The text states, "If there is among you a poor man, one of your shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be." The Talmud explains that each Jewish community must establish a public fund to provide food for the hungry, and our sages explain that feeding the hungry is one of our most important responsibilities on earth:  "When you are asked in the world to come, 'What was your work?' and you answer: 'I fed the hungry,' you will be told: 'This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry'" (Midrash to Psalm 118:17).

See this excellent and comprehensive summary of the Jewish response to hunger - and don’t forget to fill up bags for our Person to Person food drive!  Also, you can get involved in Mazon’s High Holiday food drive.

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