Last night I attended a Rosh Hashanah service put on by Jews for Jesus. I was very active in Jewish circles in college because of the peculiarities of campus politics, and am a huge supporter of Israel. I took some classes on Judaism and Jewish history (when I was a Study of Religion major), and am one of those Protestants who emphasize the Jewish roots of Christianity.
Rosh Hashanah, also known as the Jewish New Year, is the beginning of the ten Days of Awe, which culminate in Yom Kippur. According to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah, God opens three books. In one are the righteous, whose names are immediately sealed – they’ve passed the test. In the other two books are the names of the wicked and people who are neither completely wicked nor righteous. Those people then have ten days (Days of Awe) to prove they are righteous through repentence, prayer, and good deeds. The books are then sealed on Yom Kippur. If you make it in to the Book of Life, you’re good for another year.
The basis of the holiday is Leviticus 23:24,25: “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts.” The trumpet blast is from the shofar (ram’s horn), which plays a central role in Rosh Hashanah. Apples dipped in honey also play a prominent part, symbolizing the desire for a sweet year ahead.
The Jews for Jesus service last night was interesting, and they’ve done some reappropriating of the meaning of several aspects. For example:
The blast of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah is not just a call to repentance, but a reminder of Jesus’ return. “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Messiah will rise first” (1Thessalonians 4:16).
Rosh Hashanah also provides for a very clear contrast between Judaism and Christianity on the point of salvation. According to Jewish tradition (and it’s not written in the Bible), we save ourselves through good works. If we don’t do enough during the year, we have those ten days to really prove we’re worth it. Ultimately, it’s a challenge that none of us can pass, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). We have all sinned, and God requires a sacrifice to attone for it. Jesus was that sacrifice who, once and for all, writes our names in the Book of Life. Moreover, the works we do can never get us anywhere near pure enough to get into the presence of God, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)
That said, Rosh Hashanah is still a good time to reflect upon the past year and reexamine our life. It’s also a great opportunity to thank and praise God for the sacrifice he made on our part, so that we don’t have to be worried about taking a test that we could never pass.