The Birthday of the World

An American Jew’s experience of the Jewish holidays is inextricably linked to the American calendar, to regional weather patterns and to the distinct geographies of his or her surroundings. It’s hard for me to imagine the period of Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot without thinking of the onset of autumn, of leaves that are beginning to change colors, cool evenings and fall harvest vegetables. The fall carries with it its own rich poetic symbolism – a yellow leaf can signify the fall from Eden, decisions that can’t be undone, or the flourishing of love in face of the inevitability of death. So what does this all have to do with the Jewish New Year? Not much if you live in a climate where autumn is not as pronounced. Yet for an American Jewish writer like Emma Lazarus, the grandeur of the the Jewish New Year is inextricably linked to its seasonal setting:

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Emily Dickinson and the Wordless Cry of the Shofar

The Bible does not contain very much information about Rosh Hashanah. Nowhere in the Torah is it described as a day of kingship, a day of judgment, or even a new year. The only information we have about the day is that it is a “yom teruah,” or perhaps, “zikhron teruah,” a day of, or remembrance of, teruah. In the Talmud, teruah is defined as yevavah, as a kind of crying (Rosh Hashanah 33b), but the plain meaning of the Chumash seems to be closer to a day of “sounding.” This sounding does not necessarily imply praise, celebration, or even prayer. Yom Teruah is, most literally, a day of sound.  And from the perspective of the Bible, this sound does not have a specific valence, it does not tell us what to think or what to feel.

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