In a few more weeks the Jewish people across the globe will usher in a new year, the 5,779th year on the Hebrew calendar. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of the month of Tishri which corresponds this year to September 10 and 11 on the Gregorian calendar. It is followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on the 10th day of Tishri, September 19 of the current year.
In Biblical times, months and years were calculated by the cycles of the moon and the sun. In contrast with the Gregorian calendar which is only solar, the Jewish calendar is Luni-Solar. From the very early days of our history, the dates of the months were determined by the exact observation of the new moon.
When it appeared, the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was informed and the date was established only after it was confirmed by two witnesses who gave testimony that they had seen the new moon. This practice continued as long as the Sanhedrin existed.
But in the 4th century of the Common Era, the great sage, Hillel II made the system of calculating the calendar public for the first time. In this way, he preserved the unity of Jews dispersed in all countries, assuring correct celebration of fasts, feasts and festivals on the correct dates. Testimonies of witnesses were no longer in practice. The Jewish calendar was born.
Accordingly, in this new year I will have celebrated 31,390 days of my life, longing for many more new moons to extend the days.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the Yomim Nora-im, the Awe-ful days. Not awful, but days filled with awe. They are extremely solemn days of many long hours of prayers in synagogues, culminating in the 27 hours of fasting and praying on Yom Kippur, praying to be inscribed and sealed for another year of life.
The combined numbers of 5779 in gematria equal number 28. And when those two numbers are combined they become number 10, the exact number of the commandments which Moses our law-giver had received from God on the heights of Mount Sinai in the desert wilderness.
The question has been often asked of rabbis: “why were the 10 Commandments given in the desert? Why were they not given when the children of Israel entered the Promised Land?”
And the reply has always been the same: “the commandments were given in the desert wilderness which belonged to no people and to no nation in order that they could become the laws and commandments of all peoples and all nations”. A universal moral law code for all mankind.
The Days of Awe are so-called because of their severe solemnity. We greet one another with a “le-shana tova u’metooka”, a good and sweet new year.
And we begin the many long hours of addressing ourselves directly to Avinu Malkainu, our Father our King , confessing to Him our misdeeds and errors (sins) during the year just ended, praying for His Divine mercy and forgiveness, praying for the chance to begin a new year on a clean slate. Prayers from the heart accompanied by our tears.
When night falls on the second day of Rosh Hashanah we begin the process of self-examination. Ma anachnu? What are we? Ma chayenu? What is our life? We torment ourselves spiritually in aiming to find the answers in order to correct our faulty ways and to return to the commandments which God gave us.
That long process over ten days is known as “y’mai teshuva”.. the days of return, the days of repentance.
The year 5779 is upon us. How will it differ from the passing year of 5778? Can we really change? How do we begin changing? Our prayers repeat over and over again, multiple times, the two words, “tikatevu v’taichatemu”, dear God, please inscribe us and seal us in the Book of Life for a new year of good health, love of family, respect for others, truth, tranquility and hopefully a piece of peace.
Why wait until Rosh Hashanah? Let us begin now. “Im lo achshav, ai matai?”..if not now, when?