Holy Days in Israel

May the new year be a good, sweet and peaceful one.

Man with shofar at Western Wall, September 4, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Man with shofar at Western Wall, September 4, 2018
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The country is entering a unique “only-in-Israel” period. Israel alone celebrates the New Year according to the Jewish calendar. It is the start of a month of religious holidays, but unlike most religions the Jewish New Year is not celebrated with parties and fireworks; it is a time for prayer and soul-searching – heshbon hanefesh in Hebrew.
It is hard to describe just how special this period in the Jewish calendar is in Israel. Time takes on its own peculiar rhythm that absorbs Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the week-long Sukkot festival. And Israelis tend to postpone everything until “aharei hahagim” – after the holidays. Children who have only just returned to school from the summer vacation happily receive another batch of days off.
Everywhere you go, greetings for the New Year can be seen and heard; even buses carry wishes for a Shana Tova (literally a “Good Year”) flashing intermittently with the route number and destination. Television and radio programs as well as commercials address the holidays in various ways: with advice on how to prevent overeating on Rosh Hashanah, dehydration during the Yom Kippur fast, and hosting meals in tabernacles during Sukkot.
The temporary booths (sukkot, plural of sukkah), which commemorate the 40-year post-Exodus journey of the Children of Israel through the desert, can be seen everywhere. Only in Israel are apartments built with reinforced rooms that serve as shelters in the event of a rocket attack and roofless, staggered balconies to meet the requirement to be able to see the sky above from one’s sukkah.
An abundance of apples are dipped honey, in hope of a sweet as well as a good year ahead. More honey is sold in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah than during the entire rest of the year.
Prayers-turned-songs flood the airwaves. Barbra Streisand’s “Avinu Malkenu” (Our Father, Our King), the penitential “Adon Haslihot” (Master of Forgiveness) and Leonard Cohen’s “Who by fire?” based on the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, are frequently heard. Composer Yair Rosenblum’s version of the prayer, written as a tribute to the 11 members of Kibbutz Beit Hashita who fell in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, is played more frequently as Yom Kippur draws closer.
It’s hard to convey the atmosphere, particularly in Jerusalem. Slihot tours and trips around different synagogues to hear their penitential prayers – often ending at the Western Wall in the early hours of the morning – are popular to the point of being a phenomenon.
During the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, the national and individual introspection intensifies as we review the year just ended and wonder with trepidation, anticipation and awe of what lies in the year ahead.
Israel is an extraordinarily noisy place, except on Yom Kippur. On that day, the most important day in the Jewish calendar, a remarkable silence falls on the country. It is a silence that cannot be experienced in the streets anywhere else in the developed world. On Yom Kippur, by custom, even the most secular Jewish drivers don’t drive, all public transport is halted, planes do not fly in Israel’s airspace and stores and businesses close for the day. A tradition has developed for children to take the chance of riding their bicycles even down main roads.
In Israel, the festivals, prayers and seasons are in tune with nature. Jews everywhere say the Prayer for Rain on Shmini Atzeret, at the end of Sukkot. In Israel, as we leave our tabernacles at the start of the fleeting autumn, it makes sense to ask for rain. A Jew in South Africa or New Zealand can recite the prayer but it does not have the same feeling to it as saying it in the Promised Land of the Bible.
Despite the tensions of the Middle East and the modern world, Israel regularly ranks high in surveys of happiness levels and has, for several years running, placed in the 11th slot on the UN World Happiness Index.
The secret of our satisfaction seems to be our social cohesion and generosity. We come together in good times and in bad (like the recent “fire intifada” launched on southern Israel from Gaza.) Particularly during this season, despite the political and social divisions and religious difference, we find a way to bond through our joint past and future.
We are free as a people to blow our own horn – the ram’s horn: The shofar. It is a majestic, awakening sound with which to herald in our new year: the Jewish New Year. May it be a good, sweet and peaceful one.