Come this evening and it’ll be a scant 239 years until the world is disrupted by the Y6K problem on the Jewish calendar.
Tonight’s services are the first in the three-day holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
The transition into year 5761 will be celebrated by Berkeley area congregations in the traditional way: with readings from the Torah, sermons, ceremonies, feasting and pondering the big questions.
“This is the time when we think about very important questions,” said Rabbi Ferenc Raj of Berkeley’s Temple Beth El. “This will be the last Rosh Hashanah in the 20th Century, and as we travel into the 21st Century, what will we bring with us? If it is only material wealth, you must realize how quickly that disappears. Neither property nor power will bring inner peace. If we are prepared as Jews, we are prepared as human beings, citizens of the globe.”
A scant 10 days after Rosh Hashanah comes Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and highest of the Jewish high holidays. Put loosely, the short intermission between holy days is one’s last chance to make a good impression on God.
“In terms of prayers we do on Rosh Hashanah, the most powerful one is Una Tana Tokes,” says Rabbi Andrea Berlin of Temple Sinai in Oakland. “The relative philosophy behind it is it’s up to us what we decide to do with our lives for the coming year. On Rosh Hashanah our fate for the year is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. It is within our power to decide what kind of people we’re going to be in the year, in those 10 days in between.”
The interim between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time to undertake charitable acts and think positive thoughts.
“Every Rosh Hashanah we do positive things and eat sweet foods. We tell each other that we should be inscribed in the book of life for a good year, a good, sweet year,” says Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of the Chabad of the East Bay. “You dip challah (sweet, fluffy bread prepared for Jewish holidays and the Sabbath) and apples in honey. You eat pomegranates, and should do as many good deeds as you have pomegranate seeds.
“Everything you eat is a little pun,” continues Rabbi Ferris. “In Hebrew, the word for carrot (gezer) means ‘decree.’ So when you eat carrots, you’re asking God for a good decree. If you lettuce, raisins and celery, it’s ‘let-us have a raise-in celery!”
The symbolic connections with food don’t stop there. On Sunday, congregations around the world will travel, bread in hand, to bodies of water for the ancient ceremony Tashlikh.
“You’re supposed to do it at a place of living water, a constant source of water flowing outward,” said Rabbi Berlin, who, lacking a nearby body of water meeting the dictionary definition, will lead her Oakland congregation to Lake Merritt. “We read the same liturgy that is read during the Rosh Hashanah service. Then as we take the crumbs out of our pockets, we think of habits we want to get rid of; parts of ourselves we want to go into the new year without. You think of that and toss the crumbs into the water.”
Rabbi Raj points out that the ceremony is derived from a literal interpretation of the Book of Micah, chapter seven verse 19: “You (God) will cast all their sins into the depth of the sea.”
Another Rosh Hashanah tradition is the blowing of the shofar, a horn crafted from a ram’s horn. While most of the shofar-blowing worldwide will be done in temple, Chabad of the East Bay is planning a public “concert” outside Cody’s Books late Sunday afternoon, “for the coronation of The King” – and they don’t mean Elvis.
“No, not Elvis, hopefully not,” chuckles Rabbi Ferris. “And not Don King or Larry King. Or Bruce Springsteen. They call him ‘The King,’ right?”
Upon being informed that Springsteen’s nickname is actually “The Boss,” Ferris maintained that the ceremony was still not for Bruce.