Friday 7 October 2011


Pray for the Jewish people tonight as the most solemn day in their calendar commences. Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year began at sunset on 28 September and, according to the rabbis and sages of Israel:

Three ledgers are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for those who are entirely wicked, one for those who are entirely righteous, and one for those who are in the middle. The entirely righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed to live. The entirely wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed to die. The fate of those in the middle is held in balance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

According to Jewish tradition, therefore, Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement when God weighs the sins of all men: “On Rosh Hashanah all of mankind pass before Him like sheep – they pass by Him one by one, one after the other, yet He scrutinizes them all with a single glance.’

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have come to be known as Yomim Noraim, the ‘Days of Awe’ or the ‘Days of Repentance’.

In the hope of swinging the balances in heaven in their favour, during the Days of Awe Jewish people do acts of kindness and charity. The mediaeval Jewish philosopher and rabbi, Moses Maimonides wrote:

It is the custom of the entire Jewish community to give greater amounts to charity, and [do more acts of] good deeds, and to be concerned with fulfilment of commandments from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, than the rest of the year. It is the custom to arise in the night during these ten days to pray ... until the day dawns. (Laws of Repentance 3:4)

Tashlich is a ritual traditionally performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The word means ‘casting off’ in Hebrew and involves symbolically casting off the sins of previous year by throwing pieces of bread or other food into rivers, ponds or the sea, while reciting Micah 7:18-20:

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.

At the heart of the rituals for the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16 are two goats. One was sacrificed and its blood spattered on the Ark of the Covenant to make atonement for sin. The other was kept alive so the High Priest, by the laying of his hands on its head, could symbolically transfer the sins of the people to it. The goat would then symbolically carry the sins of the people into the wilderness. After the temple was destroyed in AD 70, Jewish people were taught that God requires only repentance.

Though Jewish people deny that God requires the shedding of blood to atone for sins, it is customary for some Eastern European Jews to take a cock (pictured)and whirl it about their heads three times, and intone a solemn prayer:

This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement; this cock shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace.

The bird is than delivered to the ritual slaughterer to be killed and donated to the poor.

The concept of vicarious sacrifice is indelibly imprinted on the Jewish psyche. In an old version of the Mahzor, the prayer book for the Day of Atonement, is a strange prayer. Jewish people do not use this prayer any more but they used to.

He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that we may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by His wound…

Our righteous anointed [Messiah] is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have non to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities, and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wound, at the time that the Eternal will create him (the Messiah) as a new creature. O bring him up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, by the hand of Yinnon.

This prayer bears a striking resemblance to the 53rd chapter of Isaiah; a portion of Scripture which, according to many of our ancient sages, describes the Messiah:

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed … and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:5,10)

If this is the provision afforded by the Almighty, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, then the sacrifice of Messiah is sufficient to make atonement for us all.

Pray that tonight and tomorrow Jewish people will recognise that their repentance and good deeds are inadequate for finding atonement and forgiveness, and pray that they may look to the one spoken of by the Torah and the prophets.

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