Do Hindus and Buddhists also have that knot in their stomachs, a mixture of dread and holiday food excesses?
Whenever the Jewish New Year approaches, I have to admit, I get really nervous.
Yes, there is the groaning table, the honey-dipped apples, the lovely delicacies to look forward to, fare we will spend the next few months getting rid of in the gym, until Passover does us Jews in all over again. But unlike the secular New Year which goes out with a bang, confetti, and large goblets of champagne, the Jewish New Year finds us spending hours in the synagogue reflecting on our shortcomings and failures, piercing our hearts with the knowledge that we will be held accountable in the year to come. Were it not for the gift of the 10 days of penitence culminating in Yom Kippur, which allows us to really repent and start the year with a clean slate, I doubt I’d get through it at all without a nervous breakdown.
The shofar blasts, for one thing, cut right through all my buttery sloth and excuses, touching my heart with the clear call that I can and must do better. And then the liturgy, all those prayers that remind us that all that the world is being judged, and that everyone has his fate inscribed in the big book of heavenly accounts, which only repentance, charity and good deeds can change for the better.
Can we ever give enough charity, do enough good deeds, reform ourselves to the point of being worthy of another chance at living a better year? The question only gets answered on Yom Kippur. Usually the answer is yes, we can. Only then will we really be able to face another whole year with all its pressures, uncertainties and opportunities for joy.
I was wondering this year how other faiths face the beginning of their years. Do Hindus and Buddhists also have that knot in their stomachs, a mixture of dread and holiday food excesses? What about Christians and Muslims? Interestingly enough, I found not only the obvious great differences in New Year’s celebrations as we Jews know them, but also some surprising similarities.
For example, Hindus (who celebrate New Year’s Day at different times of the year depending on the sect) spend it involved in mass worship, new dresses, embracing and kissing. For the Chinese, pre-New Year activities include resolving differences with family members, friends and neighbors and business associates, including paying all debts.
The Chinese believe that what occurs on New Year’s Day may impact your life for the rest of the year. Most of all, they believe that to ensure a prosperous and healthy year, one should create a positive energy flow at home and at work. A Chinese proverb states that all creations are reborn on New Year’s Day, and that it is a holiday that celebrates change: out with the old and in with the new.
Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bells 108 times on the eve of the New Year to symbolize the 108 sins in the Buddhist belief, and to get rid of the 108 worldly desires involving sense and feeling. The Japanese believe that the ringing bells can dispose of last year’s sins as well.
Likewise, Koreans usher in the New Year with a ritual called Jishin Balpgi in which loud drums and gongs are played to scare off evil spirits left over from the old year.
I can’t help thinking of the shofar blasts.
Interestingly, Muslims have no holiday at all that marks the beginning of their New Year, and discourage all Muslims from participating in secular New Year celebrations.
Surprisingly, a number of Christians agree with this idea, finding the secular New Year an unworthy throwback to paganism. Preacher David C. Park of the Restored Church of God, for example, warns all Christians to avoid the “violent, chaotic” customs of the traditional New Year’s festivities, condemning the drinking and drunken hook-ups as remnants of pagan debauchery, and citing statistics for drunk driving deaths which traditionally double during the period from Christmas to New Year.
Russian Orthodox Christians say that New Year’s celebrations should consist of a simple dinner of thanksgiving.
Railing against the traditional New Year’s Eve party, they explain that ever since Adam, man has been bored. He tries to fill the emptiness inside him “with alcohol, narcotics or some other sin – even the most despicable ones – and the more he fills it, the more dreadfully it yawns.”
Indeed, another website explains that even the venerable tradition of the champagne toast at midnight is traceable back to the ancient Romans and Greeks.
Apparently the host would give all his guests wine from the same vessel, but would be the first to drink, to ensure it wasn’t poisoned, apparently a commonplace concern among such guests, as the practice was a widespread technique in disposing of one’s enemies.
And why call it a “toast”? Well it seems that the taste of ancient wine could be improved by floating a piece of burnt bread on top which absorbed the excess acid. The last one to drain the pitcher got to eat it! Hence, the “toast.”
On the other hand, many Christians have drawn from Jewish tradition in defining the way they wish to celebrate the beginning of a New Year. Some suggest that New Year’s Eve is a perfect time to join with family and friends to rejoice at the gift of having completed another year of life, as well as to welcome in the coming year with prayer and rejoicing.
New Year resolutions are also an echo of Jewish tradition, an opportunity to prayerfully set goals for the year ahead. Pastor Billy Graham, in his New Year prayer, put it this way: “In the midst of our daily occupations and pursuits, open our eyes to the sorrows and injustices of our hurting world, and help us to respond with compassion and sacrifice to those who are friendless and in need. May our constant prayer be that of the ancient Psalmist: ‘Teach me, O Lord, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end’” (Psalm 119:33).
While there is so much that is universally shared at the beginning of a New Year by all peoples, nowhere did I find quite the same emphasis on being judged as in the Jewish tradition. The Mishna has the first known reference to Rosh Hashana as the “day of judgment.”
The image of the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting on a throne of judgment as all mankind pass before Him for evaluation of their deeds, is uniquely Jewish. Also unique is the concept of Rosh Hashana as the beginning of the process of last-chance repentance which only ends 10 days later on Yom Kippur. In a way, this time is the most fraught, and the most rewarding of the Jewish cycle of life, a time to recognize the ebbing of time and opportunities to be the best we can be, to strive upwards. This idea is beautifully stated in a poem by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi:
“Lord, where shall I find you? High and hidden is Your place.
And where shall I not find You? Your glory fills infinities of space…
I have sought Your presence, Called You with all my heart, And going out to meet You I found you coming toward me.”
May all of us, wherever we live and from whatever tradition we come from, find our way to God, and may our year to come be full of His blessings: peace, prosperity, happiness, filled with good deeds, good health, good fortune, and good news.
This article was published in the Jerusalem Post on 21 September 2012.