Updated: Jun 24, 2022
In a happy coincidence, South Africa’s Heritage Day on September 24 falls around the time that Jewish heritage celebrates some very important days. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, commemorates the creation of the world, and also kicks off a ten-day period of introspection and judgement which culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance.
Interestingly Rosh Hashanah finds itself blended with the heritage of other cultures.
The holiday of Rosh Hashanah is not called New Year in the Torah. Its oldest name in the Torah is 𝘠𝘰𝘮 𝘛’𝘳𝘶𝘢𝘩 (Day of Sounding the Shofar). When the Jews were living among the Babylonians, they were certainly aware of the older culture’s traditions. The Babylonians marked a ‘Day of Judgement’ each year. They believed that on that day, their gods gathered to judge each human being for the renewed world and decide on the fate of individuals for the coming year. The Jews were likely influenced by elements of this tradition, as seen by two other Biblical names for Rosh Hashanah – 𝘠𝘰𝘮 𝘏𝘢𝘡𝘪𝘬𝘢𝘳𝘰𝘯 (Day of Remembrance) and 𝘠𝘰𝘮 𝘏𝘢𝘋𝘪𝘯 (Day of Judgement). Around the second century C.E the holiday became known as Rosh Hashanah.
𝑺𝒊𝒏𝒔 𝑶𝒏 𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝑾𝒂𝒕𝒆𝒓
The symbolic ceremony of 𝘵𝘢𝘴𝘤𝘩𝘭𝘪𝘤𝘩 takes place on the first day of Rosh Hashanah over a body of water that preferably contains fish. In ancient times, many cultures believed that evil spirits lived in waterways needed to be appeased with gifts. Babylonian Jews sent baskets or containers filled with symbols of sin into the water. In the Middle Ages, this custom developed into the ritual of 𝘵𝘢𝘴𝘤𝘩𝘭𝘪𝘤𝘩 in which people recite prayers and shake their clothes over the water to represent the casting off of their own sins.
The first written record of 𝘵𝘢𝘴𝘤𝘩𝘭𝘪𝘤𝘩 comes from Germany in the fourteenth century in the writings of Rabbi Yaakov Moelin (the Maharil). The ritual, with variations and a kabbalistic element, spread to other Ashkenazic and later Sephardic communities.
𝑾𝒉𝒐 𝑺𝒉𝒂𝒍𝒍 𝑳𝒊𝒗𝒆 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑾𝒉𝒐 𝑺𝒉𝒂𝒍𝒍 𝑫𝒊𝒆?
Some of most famous words of Rosh Hashanah are found in 𝘜𝘯𝘦𝘵𝘢𝘯𝘦𝘩 𝘛𝘰𝘬𝘦𝘧 (‘Let Us Cede Power’). This magnificent poem deals with destiny for the coming year, detailing the belief that God judges each person and decrees their future, tempering his judgment for those who repent their sins. A popular legend tells that the prayer was composed in medieval Germany by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, whose arms and legs were cut off when he refused to convert to Christianity. As he lay dying, he recited the prayer on the bimah.
Historians have shown that this story is not factual, as the prayer appears in earlier liturgy and was well known among Italian Jews long before it was attributed to Rabbi Amnon, whose very name was more common in Italy than Germany. Some historians also point out the similarity to Christian legends of martyrs, such as St Emmeram of Regensburg, who suffered amputation and died praying for his murderers. The theme of the prayer also recalls Christian liturgy of similar background, most famously the 𝘋𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘐𝘳𝘢𝘦 (Day of Wrath) from the Requiem Mass. However, the fact that the legend of Rabbi Amnon stuck in the minds of subsequent generations reflects the harshness of life for Jews in medieval Europe, loaded with violence, forced conversions and killings.
One of acclaimed singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s most popular songs is ‘Who by Fire’, inspired by 𝘜𝘯𝘦𝘵𝘢𝘯𝘦𝘩 𝘛𝘰𝘬𝘦𝘧 and released in 1974 in his album 𝘕𝘦𝘸 𝘚𝘬𝘪𝘯 𝘧𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘖𝘭𝘥 𝘊𝘦𝘳𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘯𝘺. It describes his doubting personal faith but underlines his connection to his heritage.
𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝑺𝒉𝒐𝒇𝒂𝒓 𝒊𝒏 𝑺𝒆𝒄𝒖𝒍𝒂𝒓 𝑪𝒖𝒍𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒆
The shofar, the ancient instrument traditionally made from a ram’s horn, is a well-known symbol of Rosh Hashanah. Listening to the shofar being blown is one of the most important rituals of the entire festival. Its stirring sound has been used on numerous occasions in modern music. Edward Elgar’s 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘈𝘱𝘰𝘴𝘵𝘭𝘦𝘴 oratorio allows for the option of a shofar, contemporary composers Alvin Curran and Judith Shatin have featured the shofar in their works, and famous jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie performed on one. Madonna included a shofar in her 𝘊𝘰𝘯𝘧𝘦𝘴𝘴𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴 tour and her album 𝘊𝘰𝘯𝘧𝘦𝘴𝘴𝘪𝘰𝘯𝘴 𝘰𝘯 𝘢 𝘋𝘢𝘯𝘤𝘦 𝘍𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘳. In films, the musical 𝘎𝘰𝘥𝘴𝘱𝘦𝘭𝘭 had a cast member play the shofar, 𝘙𝘦𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘯 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘑𝘦𝘥𝘪 had a shofar as a sound effect, and 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘛𝘦𝘯 𝘊𝘰𝘮𝘮𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘴, 𝘈𝘭𝘪𝘦𝘯 and 𝘗𝘭𝘢𝘯𝘦𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘈𝘱𝘦𝘴 included the shofar in their musical scores.