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Rosh Hashanah, Elul, and the Year of Jubilee

shana tova-honey-shofar

A New Year’s honeypot is inscribed with “shana tova umetukah,” meaning a good and sweet year.  The shofar is sounded on Rosh HaShanah about 100 times, depending upon the traditions of the community.  (Photo by Ari Hahn)

“Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.”  (Ecclesiastes 3:15)

Tonight, September 13, 2015, as the sabbatical year or Shemitah fades with the last sunlight of the month of Elul, the sounding of the shofar (ram’s horn) will herald in Rosh HaShanah (the New Year).  It may also herald the Yovel (Year of Jubilee).

Elul has brought us to this wonderful new beginning.

The name itself—Elul (אלול)—carries the meaning to search or to inspect—conveying both self-inspection for sin and searching for God.  Therefore, it is called the month of repentance.

Elul also serves as an acronym for the relationship between God and man:  Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi Li“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

During the month of Elul, we recognized that the King, God, awaited us “in the field,” available to meet His subjects who are drawing close to Him after having distanced themselves from Him in thought and deed.

Rosh HaShanah continues the theme of repentance and drawing near to our Creator, the God of Israel.

shofar-rosh hashanah

A Jewish man blows the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.  (Flickr photo by slgckgc)

In the Bible, Rosh HaShanah is called Yom Teruah—where teruah means an awakening blast or a massive shout either by a trumpet or a crowd.

“Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, ‘Hosanna!’ ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!’ ‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’”  (Mark 11:9–10)

As the King’s servants draw close to Him, the 100 shofar blasts sound on Rosh HaShanah to emphasize our coronation of the King.

The blowing of the shofar, which calls the people to teshuva (repentance or returning), is Rosh HaShanah’s main mitzvah (observance):

“On the first day of the seventh month hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work.  It is a day for you to sound the trumpets.”  (Numbers 29:1)

Rosh Hashanah shofar

A Haredi man blows a shofar.  (Photo by Lilach Daniel)

As Elul draws to a close, our introspection and repentance intensifies, and we move into the month of Tishrei, which begins with a ten-day season called the Days of Awe (Yamim Nora’im).  This period of fervent repentance begins tonight with Rosh HaShanah and concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

According to the Talmud, on Rosh HaShanah, the Book of Life is opened and remains so for the Yamim Nora’im.  Tradition holds that on Rosh HaShanah, the righteous are written into the Book of Life and the evil into the Book of Death, while “those in-between have judgment suspended until Yom Kippur.”  (Aish)

“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened.  Another book was opened, which is the Book of Life.  The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.”  (Revelation 20:12)

Rosh HaShanah-shofar

Blowing the Shofar (Flickr photo by TK)

The Year of Jubilee is the Year of the Ram’s Horn

“Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.”  (Leviticus 25:10)

As the Jewish people worldwide meet tonight for the holy assembly of Rosh HaShanah, they will be blessing one another to “be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year.”  

Yet, the Year of Jubilee that we are entering has already been ordained as good, as consecrated and as a year of freedom for all those who live in the Land of Israel.

Jubilee, while it looks similar to the term “jubilation” in English, does not mean “a feeling of great happiness and triumph.”  Instead, the term comes from the Hebrew word yovel (יובל), which means ram’s horn and refers to the final blast of the shofar on Yom Kippur.

Because the cycle of the Yovel was disrupted some 2,700 years ago when the tribes went into exile, not all scholars agree that 5776 is the Jubilee.

If 5776 is the Yovel, it is an extension of this sabbatical year of the Shemitah in which farmers observed the Torah’s agricultural instructions to let their land rest.

The State of Israel recognized this Biblical observance by providing landowners with some alternative means to fulfill the requirement as well as a sanction for non-observant farmers.

Those who ignored the command to let the ground rest do not receive kosher certification by the rabbinate for their goods.

But for some who chose to fulfill the observance of the Shemitah, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate gave Israeli farmers a “sale permit,” buying their farms from them and selling it to a non-Jew to be reacquired at the end of the year.

Greenhouses are also seen as an acceptable alternative because “Shemitah only applies if the crops are grown in the land itself,” writes the Jewish Telegraph Agency.

Apples and honey-Rosh HaShanah

Apples and honey are symbolic of our hopes for a sweet year. In Judaism, apples also symbolize Gan Eden (Garden of Eden), which is said to have smelled like an apple orchard.

Another loophole for the agricultural industry involves the acquisition of crops that begin growing before the Shemitah but cannot be sold in the sabbatical year.  Religious officials once again step in and hire farmers to pick the crops—but sell the farmers’ labor, while “giving away” the produce.

Through a series of legal moves, the Jubilee Year—having occurred once since the State’s independence—has not been taken on formally since Israel does not yet have a fully functioning supreme Jewish court called the Sanhedrin.

And while Jewish tradition holds that the Biblically-mandated observance of the Jubilee will be reestablished with the coming of the Messiah, the time of rest for the Land that is allotted to the seventh year is supposed to carry into the Jubilee Year.

For this Jubilee, God commands, “Do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines.  For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.  (Leviticus 25:11–12)

Rosh HaShanah meal

A Jewish family brings in the New Year with a celebratory meal.  (Photo by Gil Eilam)

The Bible states that the Jubilee Year is also a year of rejoining families and returning to one’s inheritance:  “It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.”  (Leviticus 25:10)

Translated differently, “It shall be a ram’s horn for you”—a call to those far off, an invitation home.

“You, Israel, will be gathered up one by one.  And in that day a great trumpet will sound.  Those who were perishing in Assyria and those who were exiled in Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.”  (Isaiah 27:12–13)

During the Jubilee, Israelites who sold themselves due to financial hardship are to be released with their children, “and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors.  Because the Israelites are My servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves.”  (Leviticus 25:41–42)

Rosh HaShanah apples and honey-blessing

A Jewish man recites the blessing over the apples and honey at Rosh HaShanah.  (Photo by Joshua Bousel)

Sold property is also to be redeemed because the Land of Israel, like the people of Israel “is Mine and you reside in My land as foreigners and strangers.”  (Leviticus 25:23)

For those who have sold houses in un-walled villages, “what was sold … will be returned in the Jubilee, and they can then go back to their property.”  (Leviticus 25:28)

The inheritance of the Levitical tribe would be returned to them as well.

Eliezer Schweid at The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs calls the Jubilee Year “a periodic constitutional reform” and a “utopian vision” that would restore freedom to every member of society, but whose “realization [is] forestalled by selfish human nature.”

While Schweid believes the year of Jubilee falls on a different cycle of years, his sentiments hold true:  “It would be worthy, in this Jubilee Year, to utter the scriptural call, ‘There shall be examination.’”

“Israel today is in need of a series of reforms that will enable it to rest firmly once more on the foundations of its values, and ready to perform its social and national missions,” Schweid writes.

round challah-Rosh HaShanah

During Rosh HaShanah, the challah (egg bread) is fashioned in round loaves instead of braided. This reminds us that we have the choice to change what we do, or to remain in our repetitive cycles, continuing to do the things we know we shouldn’t.  (Photo by Joshua Bousel)

Separated to Wholeness

Just as the Land is separated in the sabbatical year to rest and be renewed into full vigor, so too does Rosh HaShanah herald a restoration of our souls.

Yom Teruah calls for a new beginning—not just of the civil year, but also of our spirits as we repent and God cleanses us of our unrighteousness.

Rosh HaShanah’s tashlich (to cast) service, to be held on the first afternoon of the new year, evokes a separation between ourselves and our sin, as we symbolically throw bread chunks into a body of moving water while seeking the Lord to remove our sins from us:

“You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”  (Micah 7:19)

“As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.  As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.”  (Psalm 103:12–13)

Tashlich-Rosh HaShanah

A 1980 Government of Israel Press Office photo of Tashlich on a Tel Aviv Beach by Saar Yaacov.

The special shout of the Jubilee Year compels us to return to our inheritance in God:  “Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. … surely I have a delightful inheritance.”  (Psalm 16:5–6)

For those who have believed and accepted the salvation given by the Messiah Yeshua, “you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.”  (Ephesians 1:13–14)

The Jubilee offers within its gift of freedom both relationship with God and reconciliation for families, as it provokes the return to one’s clan.  Those who have been distant or cast off are called to return—and are called to be welcomed in.

With the Book of Life opened during these High Holy Days, God also waits to welcome us in.  As we bless one another “to be written and sealed for a good year,” may “our consciences [be cleansed] from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”  (Hebrews 9:14)