The Jewish New Year is Sukkot?!
This year, Rosh haShanah begins on the evening of Sept. 12. Sukkot, the full moon harvest festival, begins two weeks later on Sept. 26.
The days are growing shorter, the breeze is picking up, and in my area, the leaves are just starting to display a tinge of yellow. In a few weeks, it will be time for the new year: Rosh haShanah, the day on which human beings were first formed out of the earth. Traditionally, Jews spend the two days of the New Year eating sweet foods as a siman (a sign, symbol, or blessing) that the coming year should be sweet, and reflecting on their past deeds in order to improve in the future. It’s a day of rebirth, a day of looking back and beginning to move forward. Yet originally, the day of Rosh haShanah probably wasn’t the new year at all.
If one reads the Bible, it becomes clear that Sukkot—the harvest festival that falls on the full moon two weeks after Rosh haShanah, also known as Chag haAsif, the Ingathering Festival— was the new year. In the Bible, Sukkot alone is called tzeit hashanah, the departure of the year. This was a day of pilgrimage when farmers brought their first fruits, and the pilgrims and priests drummed and danced all night to the light of giant torches. At dawn, palm branches waved, water was poured on the altar as a sign of blessing, and the assembled crowd chanted praises to the Divine and the Temple. Today, Jews still process in circles with their lulavim on each day of Sukkot, symbolically turning the wheel of life back to its beginning. At the end of Sukkot, the Torah is re-rolled and a special “bride” or “groom” of the Torah reads about the creation of the world. Doesn’t that sound more like a new year?
Rosh haShanah, in the Bible, is called Yom Teruah or day of horn-sounding. It was probably a sacred preparatory day, calling the pilgrims to prepare for their journey toward Jerusalem. Yom Kippur too, the most sacred day of the Jewish year, is a preparatory day. When the high priest went into the Temple to cast blood on the sacred curtain seven times, he was cleansing the land and people in preparation for Sukkot. This blood was a kind of womb-cleansing, a way of casting out the old. Crimes against the land, the deity, and the society left a physical residue in the land, and the cloud of incense rising in the Holy of Holies removed that residue and let the land re-fill with pure, good energy. The Yom Kippur scapegoat, a goat sent into the wilderness, was also a ritual to rid the land of its demons. Only then could the harvest festival, the joyful new year of Sukkot, begin.
From an earth-based perspective, Sukkot as the new year makes perfect sense. It is the harvest that turns the cycle of the year, moving our attention from cutting down produce to planting it. At Sukkot, the Shekhinah, the presence of divinity dwelling in the earth, surrounds us as we dwell in outdoor booths called sukkot. These booths represent the earth itself, the fragile home of humanity, roofed with sky and tree branches. What better way to begin a new year than to honor our dependence on Mother Earth and show our gratitude to the Divine for weaving us this amazing sukkah of a planet?
So how did Rosh haShanah become the new year? Probably, as the people were exiled from the land, the harvest became less important, less sacred. The personal reflection and repentance associated with the new year became correspondingly more important. So, the new year was placed before Yom Kippur, at a time when people were thinking about changing their ways. The harvest festival became something of an afterthought, albeit a joyful one. Over time, Yom Teruah became Yom haZikaron, the day of remembrance, and then Rosh haShanah, the head of the year.
There’s no turning back history, and I don’t expect we will be changing the placing of the Jewish new year. Apples and honey are too big a hit to be suddenly canceled. Yet I intend to spend this holiday season remembering that the inner soul work of Rosh haShanah is only a preparation. Our spiritual work must compel us to live more wisely in our bodies, and to live with more gratitude upon the earth. So, on Rosh haShanah, I’ll have my solemn “preliminary interview” with the Holy One. When Sukkot rolls around, I’ll revel in the earthy blessings of Shekhinah, look up at the full moon in the sacred sky, and with a fully cleansed spirit, prepare to meet the future.
A sweet, healthy, joyful new year to all (whenever you celebrate it!)
Rabbi Jill Hammer is director of Tel Shemesh, Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and the author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.
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