Rosh Hashanah with the Chief Rabbi
Ten years ago, the first day of Rosh Hashanah—the two-day Jewish New Year—fell on September 18. That was one week after September 11, 2001, when almost 3,000 people were killed by Muslim terrorists. On that Rosh Hashanah, rabbis did not lack for sermon topics.
The fragility of life, the perpetual struggle between humanity's good and evil inclinations, why terrible things sometimes happen to innocent people—these were among the classic Rosh Hashanah themes that gained sudden, urgent relevance that year. Some Christian clergy lamented at the time that they had no religious analogue to Rosh Hashanah, and hence no established liturgical forum in which to address these matters with their congregants.
It is largely because of the absence of a Christian parallel to the "Days of Awe," the ten-day period on the Jewish calendar from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, that Rosh Hashanah has escaped Americanization. Passover has taken on some of Easter's coloration as a harbinger of spring renewal. The perennial popularity of gift-giving has made Hanukkah something of an eight-day Christmas. In contrast, Rosh Hashanah occurs at a time when the days grow shorter and bright summer shifts imperceptibly into darkening fall; it marks the onset of a process of introspection, personal and communal stocktaking, regret for past failings, and resolve to do better. There is no parallel in American Christianity, and the secular New Year in the dead of winter belongs to a different realm.
This year's Rosh Hashanah, beginning on the evening of September 28, will be enhanced by Koren Publishers' new Hebrew-English mahzor, with an introduction and commentaries by Jonathan Sacks, who for two decades has been Chief Rabbi of United Synagogue in Great Britain. "Mahzor," the Hebrew word for cycle, denotes a prayer book for a Jewish holiday that is part of the cyclical Jewish liturgical calendar. The Koren Mahzor contains all the traditional prayers, poetic additions, and scriptural passages read in Ashkenazi congregations plus the tractate of Rosh Hashanah in the Mishnah (ca. 2nd-3rd century C.E.), which discusses the laws of the holiday. In the Orthodox market, because the venerable Birnbaum Mahzor is out of print, Koren is essentially going one-on-one against ArtScroll—a publishing juggernaut whose user-friendly Hebrew-English prayer books for all occasions, with commentaries reflecting only the most noncontroversial traditional sources, have swept the Orthodox community and found a following in parts of the non-Orthodox world as well.
The new Koren Mahzor matches ArtScroll in ease of use. And the Koren graphics, especially the magnificent Koren Hebrew typeface, provide unmatched aesthetic pleasure. The page layout, though, is decidedly unorthodox. All mahzorim are paginated from right to left, the direction in which Hebrew is read. In previous Hebrew-English mahzorim, the original Hebrew text was on the right page of the open volume and the English translation on the left. But the Koren Mahzor reverses the order, with Hebrew on the left and English on the right. The change may take some getting used to for anyone who does not already use the Koren siddur (prayer book), but it makes good sense: As you turn the pages from right to left, your eye naturally turns leftward, and you see the original Hebrew text first.
Moreover, Koren's English translation is more direct and less stilted than ArtScroll's. For example, near the beginning of the Amidah (standing prayer), the ArtScroll English text says to God, "The Resuscitator of the dead are You; abundantly able to save." Koren says, simply, "You give life to the dead and have great power to save." Similarly, YHWH, the name of God, is pronounced Adonai in Hebrew; in English, Koren simply uses "Lord," the English translation of Adon. This is a major improvement over ArtScroll's use of Hashem (Hebrew for "the Name") in the English text. Hashem expresses deference to the taboo on uttering God's name, but it is not English—and, besides, has always given me the queasy feeling that I was praying to the ruling dynasty of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
In his contributions to the new mahzor, Rabbi Sacks, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, further cements his reputation as this generation's preeminent interpreter of Orthodox Judaism. Unlike authors of other traditional commentaries, Sacks is not satisfied with localized explanations of specific phrases and prayers. Instead, he identifies broad themes in the liturgy and the ways in which they reflect key concepts associated with Rosh Hashanah. For example, he explains that all the accounts in the Torah and prophetic readings for the holiday—the birth and near-sacrifice of Isaac, the birth of Samuel, Rachel's weeping from the grave about the exile of her children—teach the precariousness of generational continuity and the preciousness of every Jewish child.
Sacks points out that these lessons, in turn, are part of the larger Jewish celebration of life, a refrain regularly repeated in the Rosh Hashanah service. This divine gift of life, Sacks adds, is fittingly symbolized by the sounding of the shofar—which is effected by the power of human breath, itself the sign of life and the means by which God first conferred life.
Sacks, a modern thinker, does not shy away from the historical aspects of Rosh Hashanah. His introduction to the mahzor tells how the holiday evolved from its embryonic beginnings—two brief mentions, in the Books of Leviticus and Numbers, of a day associated with t'ruah (the sound of a horn blowing) on the first day of the seventh Hebrew month—to include, eventually, the beginning of a new year, God's judgment of the world, and the imperative of human repentance. And he shows a postmodern side as well. Many rabbinic authorities tended to disapprove of the folk custom of tashlikh—reciting psalms at a river and symbolically tossing one's sins into the water. But Sacks justifies the practice as a psychologically effective means of concretizing the decision to turn over a new leaf.
In short, the Koren Mahzor is the choice for anyone seeking a Rosh Hashanah experience that is clearly and attractively packaged, fully traditional, and intellectually serious.
Lawrence Grossman is the editor of the American Jewish Year Book.
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