Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, comes as early as it can this year on September 5 (lasting two days). It always falls on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, but since the Jewish and Gregorian calendars don’t match, Rosh Hashanah can also fall as late as October 5.
In any case, Rosh Hashanah (it literally means “head” or “beginning” of the year) comes with the onset of autumn or at least the dwindling of summer. It may seem an odd time for the year to begin; and Tishrei is, indeed, the seventh month of the Jewish year, not the first. The Jewish calendar, though, is marked by a certain defiance of nature: days begin at sundown, and the year begins when the natural year starts its decline.
Here in the Land of Israel, Rosh Hashanah is a time when the hot, bright blue of summer finally relents, permitting breezes and puffy white clouds. A time of apples and pomegranates, of kids going back to school, of stocktaking and renewal. The time when the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown in flat, eerie blasts in the synagogue, calling us to repent and get inscribed for another year in the Book of Life.
Apart from Rosh Hashanah having come so early this year, the run-up to it had a special character for another reason. The gas attack in Syria, possibility of a U.S. strike, and possibility of a Syrian (or other) “retaliation” against Israel have had people—that is, those who don’t already have gas masks—standing in long, sometimes unruly queues to obtain them. It even got us back on the TV screens for a while.
It’s not panic; people know that, as various talking heads keep reminding us, the chances of the embattled Assad wanting to get Israel too aren’t great. But we also know where we live, that two hours north of Jerusalem 1400 people were gassed to death by an ally of Iran, which keeps developing nukes that its “religious” and political leaders have boasted time and again are aimed for our annihilation.
So, this year, the rush on gas masks coincided with the rush on apples, honey, pomegranates, dates, specially packaged chocolates and wines, and other items for the Rosh Hashanah table—along with, for that matter, the rush on schoolbooks, pencils, knapsacks, and so on for the kids. Around here we don’t have much choice but to choose life; our tradition, customs, and the rhythms of the year push us into it, gliding through the surrounding darkness, defying its decrees, on a well-lit stream.