Rosh Hashanah, the first of High Holy Days



Sunset, Sept. 13th of this month began the holiest 10 days in the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah. It has several meanings, “Head of the Year,” “Day of Shouting/Raising a Noise” or “Feast of Trumpets.” Rosh Hashanah is the first of the High Holy Days or “Days of Awe.”

It is a two day celebration, which begins on the first day of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar. Tishrei is the first month of the Jewish civil year but the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. Because of the differences in the solar and lunar calendar it corresponds to September or October on the secular calendar. The day is believed by Jews to be the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve and their first actions toward the realization of humanity’s role in God’s world. It begins the 10 day period of prayer, self-examination and repentance.

Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Francis recently, accompanied by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. During the meeting he gave the pope a special set of apple and honey used for the Jewish New Year celebrations. He told Vatican Radio the gift represented bitterness experienced in the past and the hope of moving forward in a “sweet manner.”

Customs associated with Rosh Hashanah include sounding the shofar, eating round challah bread and tasting apples and honey to represent a sweet New Year.

Rabbi Mirvis praised the pope as a “truly outstanding and inspirational spiritual leader,” and said that his gift was an “expression of our thoughts as regards the background to our visit and how, thanks to the Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate, we are moving very much forward.”

The 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate is Oct. 28 of this year. Pope Francis has spoken on the importance of this watershed document many times this past year. He told participants gathered for a meeting to plan celebrations of the anniversary that Nostra Aetate represents a definitive “yes” to the Jewish roots of Christianity and an irrevocable “no” to anti-Semitism. He said that both faith traditions were no longer strangers but friends and brothers. He added that when communities of Catholics and Jews throughout the world celebrate Nostra Aetate “we are able to see the rich fruits which it has brought about and to gratefully appraise Jewish-Catholic dialogue.”

He added, “In this way, we can express our thanks to God for all the good which has been realized in terms of friendship and mutual understanding these past 50 years.”

Pope Francis has spoken about the different perspectives Christians and Jews have theologically, but he emphasizes that they confess one God, Creator of the universe and Lord of history. And he said that God, “in his infinite goodness and wisdom, always blesses our commitment to dialogue.”

He explained that both faith traditions, “find their foundation in the One God, the God of the Covenant, who reveals himself through his Word. In seeking a right attitude toward God, Christians turn to Christ as the fount of new life and Jews to the teaching of the Torah. This pattern of theological reflection on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity arises precisely from Nostra Aetate and upon this solid basis and it can be developed yet further.”

This year’s Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 13 marked the end of the seventh year, the “Shemitah,” in which the land of Israel, according to the Torah, takes a sabbatical from agricultural activities. The year that will begin on Rosh Hashanah is not just the year after another Shemitah, but a Jubilee year or “Yovel,” the 50th year after seven successive seven year cycles. According to the book of Leviticus, the Sabbatical year is a time when debts are forgiven, slaves are freed, land is returned and the mercies of God will be manifest.

Interestingly, Pope Francis has announced an extraordinary Jubilee Holy Year of Mercy to begin on Dec. 8 of this year, the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s completion. In announcing this special year the pope said “the church is the house that welcomes all and refuses no one.”

He said that “the Jubilee Year has always constituted an opportunity for great amnesty, which is intended to include the many people who, despite deserving punishment, have become conscious of the injustice they worked and sincerely wish to re-enter society and make their honest contribution to it. May they all be touched in a tangible way by the mercy of the Father who wants to be close to those who have the greatest need of his forgiveness.”

May Jews and Catholics look to the Father of mercies during this Jubilee year that we share.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.