Whenever the Jewish New Year approaches, I have to admit, I get really
Yes, there is the groaning table, the honey-dipped apples, the
lovely delicacies to look forward to, fare we will spend the next few months
getting rid of in the gym, until Passover does us Jews in all over again. But
unlike the secular New Year which goes out with a bang, confetti, and large
goblets of champagne, the Jewish New Year finds us spending hours in the
synagogue reflecting on our shortcomings and failures, piercing our hearts with
the knowledge that we will be held accountable in the year to come. Were it not
for the gift of the 10 days of penitence culminating in Yom Kippur, which allows
us to really repent and start the year with a clean slate, I doubt I’d get
through it at all without a nervous breakdown.
The shofar blasts, for one
thing, cut right through all my buttery sloth and excuses, touching my heart
with the clear call that I can and must do better. And then the liturgy, all
those prayers that remind us that all that the world is being judged, and that
everyone has his fate inscribed in the big book of heavenly accounts, which only
repentance, charity and good deeds can change for the better.
Can we ever
give enough charity, do enough good deeds, reform ourselves to the point of
being worthy of another chance at living a better year? The question only gets
answered on Yom Kippur. Usually the answer is yes, we can. Only then will we
really be able to face another whole year with all its pressures, uncertainties
and opportunities for joy.
I was wondering this year how other faiths
face the beginning of their years. Do Hindus and Buddhists also have that knot
in their stomachs, a mixture of dread and holiday food excesses? What about
Christians and Muslims? Interestingly enough, I found not only the obvious great
differences in New Year’s celebrations as we Jews know them, but also some
For example, Hindus (who celebrate New Year’s
Day at different times of the year depending on the sect) spend it involved in
mass worship, new dresses, embracing and kissing. For the Chinese, pre-New Year
activities include resolving differences with family members, friends and
neighbors and business associates, including paying all debts.
Chinese believe that what occurs on New Year’s Day may impact your life for the
rest of the year. Most of all, they believe that to ensure a prosperous and
healthy year, one should create a positive energy flow at home and at work. A
Chinese proverb states that all creations are reborn on New Year’s Day, and that
it is a holiday that celebrates change: out with the old and in with the
Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bells 108 times on the
eve of the New Year to symbolize the 108 sins in the Buddhist belief, and to get
rid of the 108 worldly desires involving sense and feeling. The Japanese believe
that the ringing bells can dispose of last year’s sins as well.
Koreans usher in the New Year with a ritual called Jishin Balpgi in which loud
drums and gongs are played to scare off evil spirits left over from the old
I can’t help thinking of the shofar blasts.
Muslims have no holiday at all that marks the beginning of their New Year, and
discourage all Muslims from participating in secular New Year
Surprisingly, a number of Christians agree with this idea,
finding the secular New Year an unworthy throwback to paganism. Preacher David
C. Park of the Restored Church of God, for example, warns all Christians to
avoid the “violent, chaotic” customs of the traditional New Year’s festivities,
condemning the drinking and drunken hook-ups as remnants of pagan debauchery,
and citing statistics for drunk driving deaths which traditionally double during
the period from Christmas to New Year.
Russian Orthodox Christians say
that New Year’s celebrations should consist of a simple dinner of
Railing against the traditional New Year’s Eve party, they
explain that ever since Adam, man has been bored. He tries to fill the emptiness
inside him “with alcohol, narcotics or some other sin – even the most despicable
ones – and the more he fills it, the more dreadfully it yawns.”
another website explains that even the venerable tradition of the champagne
toast at midnight is traceable back to the ancient Romans and
Apparently the host would give all his guests wine from the same
vessel, but would be the first to drink, to ensure it wasn’t poisoned,
apparently a commonplace concern among such guests, as the practice was a
widespread technique in disposing of one’s enemies.
And why call it a
“toast”? Well it seems that the taste of ancient wine could be improved by
floating a piece of burnt bread on top which absorbed the excess
The last one to drain the pitcher got to eat it! Hence, the
On the other hand, many Christians have drawn from Jewish
tradition in defining the way they wish to celebrate the beginning of a New
Year. Some suggest that New Year’s Eve is a perfect time to join with family and
friends to rejoice at the gift of having completed another year of life, as well
as to welcome in the coming year with prayer and rejoicing.
resolutions are also an echo of Jewish tradition, an opportunity to prayerfully
set goals for the year ahead. Pastor Billy Graham, in his New Year prayer, put
it this way: “In the midst of our daily occupations and pursuits, open our eyes
to the sorrows and injustices of our hurting world, and help us to respond with
compassion and sacrifice to those who are friendless and in need. May our
constant prayer be that of the ancient Psalmist: ‘Teach me, O Lord, to follow
your decrees; then I will keep them to the end’” (Psalm 119:33).
there is so much that is universally shared at the beginning of a New Year by
all peoples, nowhere did I find quite the same emphasis on being judged as in
the Jewish tradition. The Mishna has the first known reference to Rosh Hashana
as the “day of judgment.”
The image of the Holy One, Blessed be He,
sitting on a throne of judgment as all mankind pass before Him for evaluation of
their deeds, is uniquely Jewish. Also unique is the concept of Rosh Hashana as
the beginning of the process of last-chance repentance which only ends 10 days
later on Yom Kippur. In a way, this time is the most fraught, and the most
rewarding of the Jewish cycle of life, a time to recognize the ebbing of time
and opportunities to be the best we can be, to strive upwards. This idea is
beautifully stated in a poem by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi: “Lord, where shall I find
you? High and hidden is Your place.
And where shall I not find You? Your
glory fills infinities of space...
I have sought Your presence, Called
You with all my heart, And going out to meet You I found you coming toward
May all of us, wherever we live and from whatever tradition we come
from, find our way to God, and may our year to come be full of His blessings:
peace, prosperity, happiness, filled with good deeds, good health, good fortune,
and good news.