Welcome to the 5784 holiday season. That means that the very first
Rosh HaShanah occurred 5,784 years ago. Don’t be surprised. Those early
years lasted much longer than ours do today. The Jewish calendar is always
moving, even though the dates for the Jewish holidays always remain the
same. Rosh HaShanah is always on the 1 st day of Tishrei, and Chanukah is
on the 25 th of Kislev every year. But because the Jewish calendar follows a
lunar year, and our secular calendar follows a solar year, we lose about 11
days each year and we compensate by adding an entire month (the month of
Adar II in March) to get us back on track. So next year, in 2024, Rosh
HaShanah will still be on the 1 st of Tishrei, but it will fall on October 3 rd .
The basic reason that the holidays move around this way is that the
Torah indicates specific seasons for the holidays. Passover is “Chag
Ha’Aviv” which is the Springtime Holiday, and Shavuot is “Chag
Ha’Katzir” which is the Harvest Holiday. So our holidays are intrinsically
related to the seasons of the year.
And they all revolve around food. You know the joke- what’s the
basis of every Jewish holiday? They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat! But
the major festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, are literally tied to food.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, while major holidays to us, were barely
mentioned in the Torah. Rosh Hashanah isn’t mentioned by name, only as a
Yom Teru’ah- a day for sounding the shofar. And while Yom Kippur is
mentioned by name, we are only told V’INITEM ET NAFSHOTEICHEM-
you shall “afflict” yourselves on that day. What kind of affliction is not
given, so while we assume it meant fasting, it may simply mean turning off
your cell phone for 24 hours!
But the Torah repeatedly refers to the three Festivals, and perhaps the
biggest one is coming on the heels of the High Holy Days. Sukkot is the
beginning of the planting season in the Middle East. Winter is the rainy
season, and without rain there are no crops, and without crops there is no
food. That’s why the second paragraph of the Shema warns that if we don’t
follow God’s commands, the rains will not come and we will all perish.
So in ancient times our ancestors prayed for rain. They took the lulav
and etrog and made processions around the Temple shaking the lulav and
reciting poems known as Hosha’not. While most Jews don’t know what
Hosha’na means, many Christians are familiar with the Anglicized term,
Hosanna. Hosanna in Christian usage is often a jubilant shout. But the
original Hebrew is actually two words, Hosha and Na, which means, “Please
save us”. In the context of doing an ancient rain dance with lulav and etrog
marching around the Temple just before planting takes place, the connection
between salvation and rain is apparent. The salvation was quite literal, not
spiritual. It was a request for life to continue, which could only happen if the
rains came to water the crops.
Since Sukkot is hardly celebrated outside of Orthodox circles these
days, reciting the Hoshanot in Temple is not familiar to many of us. The
closest liturgical prayer in which we ask for life would be the Unetaneh
Tokef we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, asking God to inscribe us
in the Book of Life. But traditional Judaism still sees Sukkot as the ultimate
time for such a request, tied as it is to the land and the produce of the farm.
And so the actual time for the closing of the gates, the sealing of our fate in
that Book of Life is not on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, but rather on the
last day of Sukkot, called Hoshanah Rabba, where we circle the Temple
seven times with seven poems asking Hosha Na- Please save us!
May this New Year be filled with blessings for you and your family!