Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.
Rosh Hashanah (lit., "head of the year"), celebrated on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is the Jewish New Year, and marks the beginning of a 10-day period of prayer and reflexion, the Yamim Noraim.
The High Holy Days’ preparations begin a month earlier: Elul is a month devoted to prepare ourselves to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Such is the case that some communities have the habit of playing the shofar at the end of every service from Monday to Friday mornings during Elul as a reminder of the Yamim Noraim.
The month of Elul ends with the Selichot (forgiveness) services. The Selichot liturgy has one of the finest religious poetry ever composed.
The first night of Rosh Hashanah we celebrate a special ceremony with prayers over a selection of food. The better known are the round chalah that symbolizes the life cycle, and the apples and honey that represent the kindness and sweetness that we wish for the New Year.
The Seder origins are on the Talmud (Horayot 12 bis) where Abaye analyzes the meaning of some symbols and suggests that, at the beginning of every year, the people should get used to eat the following products that symbolize abundance and prosperity: pumpkin, beans, leek, beetroot and dates.
This ritual blessings follow a specific order (Seder), and all of them begin with the words "Yehi ratzon" (May it be your will), although the food that is part of the Seder may be different depending on tradition (Ashkenazi or Sephardic), or the community. Some people observe the Seder only the first night of Rosh Hashanah, while other families observe it on both the first and second nights. We can also add different products to the ones set by tradition to symbolize through their characteristics some wishes for the New Year.
Teshuvah is a rebirth of the heart revealed in action and behaviour that culminates on Yom Kippur.
This is a progressive definition and, contrary to general belief, it is not at odds with our roots. Jewish tradition speaks of heshvon hanefesh, a soul balance. It is an emotional and spiritual balance, one in which the person should ask him/herself: Where am I in terms of my personal development? Did I get better or worse? Where do I need to get better? If the individual decides that a change is necessary, he/she must undertake three actions:
1st Admission: confronting the fact that we must improve, that something is wrong and must be mended.
2nd Meditation: What harm have we produced? Who has been damaged? What have been repercussions that I have provoked to myself and to other people?
3rd Commitment: deciding to do things better, to transform the damage and/or the repercussions by means of a different behaviour and/or actions.
Keeping a mental state that facilitates introspection while doing retrospection in order to improve ourselves is both healthy and progressive. Jewish tradition has identified this mind state as teshuvah, that is, return or repentance. Tradition and progress take a leading role in a process triggered by the eagerness of personal excellence. It is indeed a gift that our tradition reminds us that once in a while we should stop to reflect on our life. Although the opportunity to do teshuvah is always present, in our daily life we are not predisposed to such meditations. The month of Elul calls us to be more introspective. We should regard it as the great annual evaluation.
According to the sages, Elul has its roots in the beginning of the Jewish collective memory. After the golden bull and the breaking of the first tablets, Moses ascended the Mount Sinai. The midrash says that the final descent of Moses after forty nights and forty days took place at Yom Kippur (10th of Tishri), the moment when he offered the people the Second Tablets of the Law. Therefore, the month of Elul was, and it still is, the ideal moment to do jeshvon hanefesh and to reflect on where we come from and where we want to go to.
This spirit of spiritual evaluation has lovely liturgical equivalents that were turned into precepts and customs.
An important part of the month of Elul is the prayer recitation for forgiveness called Selichot. They are, basically, a “literary” help to introspection.
Similarly, it is customary to read aloud Psalm 27 that begins as follow: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” This strengthens the teshuvah process as a brave and stimulant effort.
Playing the shofar is essential and mandatory. Although we will see later on the origin and meaning of its sounds, Maimonides wrote something worth mentioning in that regard. He said that the sound of the shofar was, once we were settled in a state of introspection, a call to transformation, or repentance, if you like. But, beware! The repentance is futile devoid of the sincere inclination to change, commitment and behaviour or action. As it is beautifully expressed in poetry:
“Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from your slumber! Search your deeds and turn in Teshuvah. Remember your Creator, O you who forget the truth in the vanities of time and go astray all the year after vanity and folly that neither profit nor save. Look to your souls, and better your ways and actions. Let every one of you abandon his evil way and his wicked thought, which is not good.”
Although we have provided a view of the teshuvah process as something gradual and in stages, we must emphasize that this is only a pattern, a guide, because we know that mental processes are always unique. Don’t worry if you find it difficult to set off such a process, but do your best not to render it meaningless or empty. Remember that tradition and progress take a leading role in a process triggered by the eagerness of personal excellence.
A very significant practice associated with Rosh Hashanah is the tashlikh ceremony, in which we go to the sea, to some river or stream to throw bread pieces to the water (the crumbs left in the pockets). This physical action reminds us of the need to begin the New Year recognizing and getting rid of our mistakes, no matter how insignificant they may seem to us.