There is an air of excitement in Israel in the days leading up to the fall High Holidays, and the sights, sounds, and smells are wonderful! The weather has finally become cooler, ripe pomegranates are arriving in the market, and there is delicious golden round challah to eat. Beware of getting caught in the market a day or two before the holidays, as it is extremely crowded – everyone is trying to prepare for enough food to last for days on end as stores, buses, schools, businesses all shut down during these festivals.
Rosh HaShannah (the New Year) is the first of the holidays to occur. Both locals and tourists wish each other Lashanah tovah u’metucha – a happy and sweet New Year! During Rosh HaShannah, you can expect to hear the piercing blast of the shofar (ram’s horn). Used at many different times in the history of Israel, the sound of the shofar always meant that something important was about to take place.
The first mention of a ram’s horn in the Bible occurs in Genesis 22, when the ram that became the replacement for Isaac on the altar was caught in the thicket by its horns. In this regard, the shofar reminds us of Abraham’s obedience and God’s mercy in providing atonement for our sins.
In the days of the Temple, the shofar blast marked the beginning of the ten-day period leading up to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) when the sacrifice presented to the Lord by the High Priest on behalf of the nation would be either accepted or rejected, thus paying for the sins of the people. As believers, we know that a perfect, complete, and eternal sacrifice was made for us – that of Jesus our High Priest!
Ten days after Rosh HaShannah comes Yom Kippur, and Israelis – whether religious or not – flock to the synagogues (the same way many people in the United States attend church on Christmas and Easter). Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day of the year, and it is spent fasting and remembering the sacrifices made in the Temple by the High Priest.
Nowadays, Israelis seek forgiveness from others and try to do mitzvot (good deeds) to win merit in God’s eyes. On Yom Kippur, you could hear a pin drop all around the country, as not a single store, business, bus or car is in motion. Children look forward to the one day they can freely ride their bikes down the middle of the street!
The third High Holiday is Sukkot – the “feast” mentioned in John 7:37-38. As the sun goes down on Yom Kippur, you can hear nails being hammered into wooden boards as each family builds a sukkah (booth). For eight days, you are supposed to eat and sleep in the sukkah as a reminder of how God provided for the Israelites in the desert and how He provides for us today.
This time of year is the harvest season, and rain is expected to come any day. It has not rained in Israel since March or April, so you can imagine how joyous it is when it does rain. Its effects on the scenery are dramatic – the rain washes away all the dirt and dust and refreshes the city. We are told to pray for rain so that the crops grow and the rivers are filled again (Joel 2:23-24).
There are many layers of profound meaning in Sukkot. We can understand how much we rely on the Lord for our provision as we see the parched land around us revived by the rain. At the end of Sukkot, Isaiah 12:3 is read: “Therefore with joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” There is a fascinating play on words in this verse, as the word “salvation” is “Yeshua” – the Hebrew name of Jesus. Just as the Lord provided food, water and shelter for the children of Israel in the desert (and continues to provide today), He also provided eternal salvation in Yeshua, Jesus. His salvation washes away all the dirt (sin) in our lives and has revived our souls for eternity!
Israelis approach these holidays in two ways – some are earnestly seeking the Lord’s forgiveness, and others just enjoy the extra days off work and special time with family. Unfortunately, many Israelis miss the tremendous spiritual and biblical understanding of these holidays. This season is a wonderful time to talk about spiritual things with neighbors and friends. Hearts are a little more open at this time of year as Israelis consider the God of Israel who provides, protects and preserves His people.
Coming to Israel during Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot is an amazing experience. You are welcome to come and see for yourself, as there are many opportunities to volunteer with Chosen People Ministries in Israel! Perhaps you understand the biblical and cultural background of the High Holidays from your studies, but there is nothing like seeing the rain quench the parched hills of Israel or savoring the smells of Rosh HaShanah home cooking coming from an open window.
Our Lord has mercifully kept and sustained Israel for thousands of years – both when His people were obedient and disobedient. All over Israel, the beginning and end of each holiday is marked by the sound of an air raid siren, the same siren used to alert civilians of rockets falling on their towns. This is a somber memorial that there are those who seek to destroy Israel, and yet the God of Israel has kept and watched over the Land. During the fall High Holidays, Israelis – no matter what their beliefs – realize the depth of God’s love and covenant for His chosen people.
By Rachel G. in Israel