This year on Sept. 7, Jewish people around the world will observe Rosh Hashanah. Also known as the Jewish New Year, it is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days — a 10-day period of introspection and repentance that takes place at the start of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which falls during September or October. In all synagogues, a shofar — a ram’s horn trumpet — is played to remind listeners to reflect on their behavior. After services, Jewish people often return home for a festive meal of foods symbolizing the new year, such as apples dipped in honey and challah bread that is round rather than braided.
“The perfection of a circle symbolizes entering the new year with a clean slate,” says Rabbi Sanford Olshansky, UCF adjunct professor of Judaic studies. He describes the Jewish High Holy Days as a time of “spiritual accounting.”
“It’s a time of self-examination, self-evaluation,” he says. “How do we feel about where we’re at in our lives? How do we feel about where we stand in terms of the moral and ethical principles by which we ought to be living?”
Within UCF’s Department of History, Olshansky teaches Judaism and Science, a course that deals with the perceived conflict between science and Judaism, as well as Western religion in general. Through thought-provoking discussions about topics such as the Big Bang, DNA, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and subatomic particles, students explore how one can reconcile major scientific questions with biblical creation stories.
“The purpose of the course is not to prove that religion is true,” Olshansky says. “But it’s to show that there is some common ground — more than many people realize — between science and religion.”
In addition to teaching Judaism and Science this semester, Olshansky will serve as the Jewish High Holiday rabbi on a 12-day Southern Caribbean cruise, leading Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for Jewish passengers on the ship.
Yom Kippur — which begins at sunset on Sept. 15 and concludes at nightfall on Sept. 16 this year — falls at the end of the Jewish High Holy Days and is also known as the Day of Atonement. Fasting is traditionally observed — although children, elderly adults, ill people, and pregnant women are forbidden from partaking — and the shofar is sounded to mark the conclusion of the fast at nightfall. Afterwards, it’s traditional to enjoy a “break-fast” meal of typical breakfast and brunch foods.
The traditional Hebrew greeting on Yom Kippur is G’mar chatimah tovah: “May you complete a good sealing.” This refers to completing the process of reflecting on the actions of the past year, confessing and seeking forgiveness for wrongdoing, and planning to improve in the new year.
“Whatever Jewish denomination you look at, from the most traditional to the most liberal, confessions are moral and ethical failings, not ritual failings,” Olshansky says.
When you think of confessions, you may picture a one-on-one conversation with a religious leader, such as in the Catholic tradition. But in the Jewish tradition, confessions are traditionally done in a group setting rather than in a one-on-one environment. Confessions are written out anonymously and phrased in the plural — “We have been deceitful,” for example — so that no one feels singled out.
“There’s a comfort level of being surrounded by people who are all flawed,” Olshansky says. “We could all do better, and we help each other to start the year with a clean slate.”
For Olshansky, teaching Judaism and Science and serving as a rabbi both provide an opportunity to invite self-examination — in himself and others — which he describes as the “spiritual heart” of the Jewish High Holy Days.
“There’s a joke that I’ve used from the pulpit in the past,” he says. “A person is praying on New Year’s morning: ‘God, I’ve been really good so far this year. I haven’t spoken harshly to anybody. I haven’t taken anything that wasn’t mine. I haven’t been mean to my family members. But now God, I’m going to get out of bed, and then I’m going to need lots of help.’”