The High Holy Days
by Jeffrey J. Harrison
This speech was presented at a Pre-Rosh Hashana Dinner on Sept. 12, 2004, sponsored by the Mount Zion Center, a pro-Israel Christian organization, held at the Mandarin Oriental Makati hotel in the Philippines. In addition to the many Filipino lovers of Zion present were several representatives of the Jewish community in Manila, including Paul Rosenberg and the rabbi of the community.
It’s a joy and a privilege to join together with you tonight in anticipation of the High Holy Days that begin this coming Wednesday evening with the Festival of Rosh Hashanah, the Biblical Feast of Trumpets.
It’s an especial privilege to do so as an expression of Christian solidarity with the Jewish community here in Manila, and with the State of Israel and the Jewish people around the world. These are difficult days for the Jewish people. You can see this every time you open a newspaper or watch the news. Our prayers go out to the Almighty for Israel and the many Jewish communities around the world that have experienced an increased level of violence and a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in recent months and years. We are concerned about the distortions of a biased media and of misleading news reports that further inflame anti-Jewish and anti-Israel feelings. And we are shocked at the hypocrisy that has led the nations of Europe and others to condemn Israel’s security fence, built to save lives, while Europe itself builds a similar fence, in Eastern Europe, merely to keep out economic refugees. May God bring peace to his people Israel, and especially during these coming holy days.
I have been asked to say a few words about Rosh Hashanah, the first festival of the High Holy Days. As a Christian preacher, I am still learning about the modern practices of the Jewish festivals. My first in-depth exposure to the Jewish faith took place during the three years that I was privileged to spend studying and then teaching in Israel. I went to Israel with no other interest than Biblical and archeological studies. My traditional Christian seminary training had ignored the later history of the Jewish people. But the time I spent studying in Jerusalem opened my eyes to the modern miracle of Israel, and then slowly and painfully to the difficult history between Christians and Jews from the time of the New Testament to the modern day. It soon dawned on me that the long persecution of Jews by Christians was not just a series of isolated tragedies, but the result of a long-term derailment of the Christian faith from its original vision. In other words, the many years of Christian anti-Semitism were not just a tragedy for the Jewish people, which they certainly were, but a tragedy for the Christian religion itself. This was a failure of faith that cut to the heart of the Christian religion and Christian teaching. In turning against the Jewish people, Christianity turned against its own heart and its own soul, and became something less than Christian, in fact a perversion of Christianity.
In my years of study since then, I cannot claim to have come up with a quick fix to Christianity’s heart disease. But I do know the road that points the way home. And that road begins with meetings just like the one we are having here tonight, with Christians opening their hearts to the Jewish people, and with the generous patience of the Jewish community and its representatives, to put up with us crazy and undeserving Christians as we try to figure out where we went wrong, and restore ourselves and our testimony to you and others around the world.
Most Christians today know very little about the High Holy Days, about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), even though many of the Jewish festivals were originally celebrated by Christians, too. For example, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is called
the Fast in the book of Acts. It was originally observed by Christians together with the Jewish people as a day of fasting. The evidence for this comes from none other than John Chrysostom, one of the most anti-Semitic of all the early church fathers (4th-5th century). John Chrysostom said horrible things against the Jewish people, and tried his best to cut off Christianity from its Jewish roots. But even he had to admit that not long before his time, Christians, including Gentile Christians, continued to observe the Fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with the Jewish people. Even in his own day, in the city of Antioch, many Christians visited synagogues on Sabbaths and Jewish festivals, to participate in the worship there. So the High Holy Days that begin this week are part of our Christian heritage, too. And we can only hope and pray that the cordial and open relations that once existed between church and synagogue in many places may one day be restored.
One of the reasons that Christians know little about the Jewish holidays is that observing the Jewish festival calendar was never a required part of Gentile Christianity. The Council of Acts 15 decided that Gentiles did not need to convert to Judaism to be good Christians, and that therefore they did not need to obey the entire Law of Moses. That is, to put it in a more Jewish way, they decided to treat Gentile Christians as Godfearers (Yirei Shamayim), or to use the modern name, B’nei Noach, sons of Noah, with regard to the Law of Moses. But though the Jewish festivals were not required, they proved to be extremely popular with Gentile Christians through at least the first five centuries of our faith.
One of the most important of these festival seasons is the High Holy Days, that begins this week. The High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashanah, which starts on Wednesday evening, and extend through Yom Kippur, which ends the Sabbath after next, that is, the Saturday after next, on the 25th of September. These two festivals, together with the seven days in between them, are known as the Days of Penitence, the Days of Repentance. This is a time during which Jewish people around the world—and a small but growing number of Christians—will be repenting of their sins during the previous year.
The first day of this time of repentance, Rosh Hashanah, means
the head of the year or
the beginning of the year, because according to the Jewish calendar, this will be the first day of a new year, the year 5765, that is, 5,765 years since the Creation, according to the count of the rabbis.
The Biblical name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, the day of blowing trumpets, which refers to the blowing of the ram’s horn trumpet, the shofar, on that day. Some Christian groups have taken to blowing the shofar in their services at all different times. But in the synagogue, the shofar is blown on certain days and in specific ways. The Bible doesn’t say what the reason for this blowing of trumpets was, but it served to announce the beginning of the holy seventh month of the year, in which comes the Day of Atonement, on the 10th day of that month, and the Feast of Tabernacles, which begins on the 15th day of the month.
This is not the only first day on which trumpets were blown. Trumpets were blown on the first day of every month. As it says in Num. 10:10,
...and on the first days of your months, you will blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings. This was part of the monthly new moon celebration, when the first tiny sliver of the new moon was first visible in the sky. As it says in Psalm 81:3:
Blow the trumpet (the shofar) at the time of the new moon, at the new moon festival, for our feast day.
But the Feast of Trumpets, Yom Teruah, was the only new moon celebration observed as a Sabbath rest, a day of rest, like on a Sabbath. This made it the most important of all the New Moon celebrations of the year. And since it announced the coming of the Day of Atonement, the
Fast according to the New Testament, when people repented before the Lord, the sound of the Trumpet was understood to be calling the people to repentance.
This same imagery can be seen in other places in the Bible: for example, the voice of the prophets, calling people to repentance, is compared to the sounding of a trumpet. As the prophet Joel (Yoel) said, in Joel 2:1:
Blow a trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Many Christian groups sing a song based on this verse:
Blow a trumpet in Zion, Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain... But many don’t realize the meaning of this prophecy. It’s a call to repentance because the Day of the Lord is coming, the great day of God’s judgment of all the earth. The prophet Zephaniah (Tzephanyah) also connected the blowing of the trumpet and the Day of the Lord (Zeph. 1:16). The prophets were calling the people to repent, to turn from their wicked ways. Here we see one of the most important themes of the High Holy Days, repentance in the face of God’s coming judgment.
Over the years, the rabbis and modern Judaism came to express this theme of judgment primarily in terms of an annual judgment, a yearly decision by God as to who would be inscribed in the Book of Life. The teaching is that God begins his judgment on Rosh Hashanah, when he judges the completely righteous and the completely wicked, but for everyone else, his decision is delayed until the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. As a result, in the Days of Repentance, the people turn to God to repent of their sins in the previous year, and ask for his mercy and forgiveness. But in spite of this later teaching, that focuses on a yearly judgment, there still remains in the High Holy Days an underlying end-times theme, a looking forward to the time of God’s coming judgment of all the earth.
This theme of judgment is not entirely negative. In many places, the worshippers come to the synagogue on Yom Kippur dressed in white, which is seen by some to be a sign of confidence that God will forgive them of their sins. In the same way, the coming day of God’s endtime judgment will also be the day in which he will rescue his people from humiliation by the nations. As Isaiah (Yeshayahu) put it, in Isa. 27:13,
It will come about also in that day that a great trumpet (a shofar) will be blown; and those who were perishing in the land of Assyria and who were scattered in the land of Egypt will come and worship the LORD in the holy mountain at Jerusalem. This is a prophecy of the regathering of God’s people, the work of the Messiah, as this verse was understood by the ancient rabbis.
The sound of the trumpet was also associated by the rabbis with the resurrection, when the dead will be raised to life again.
These powerful themes, that center around the Feast of Trumpets, Yom Teruah, were of vital importance to the early Christian community. These early Christians, or Notzrim as they are called in Hebrew, connected these ideas with their belief in Jesus, Yeshua, as the Messiah, and associated the resurrection of the dead with the day of the Lord and the return of Messiah. From a Christian point of view, the Feast of Trumpets is a reminder and a prophecy of the day on which, as it says in 1 Cor. 15:
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible... (1 Cor. 15:51-52).
What this means is that for Christians, too, the sound of the shofar as it sounds forth in synagogues around the world this week, as well as in a few churches, should call us, too, to repentance: repentance for our personal sins, as well as for our sins as a Christian people. We must repent of our own quickness to set aside the teachings of our faith; just as we must also repent of the evils of our brothers and sisters in the past, and especially the evils committed in the name of Jesus against the Jewish people.
At this same gathering a couple of years ago, I understand there was an act of repentance made on behalf of the Christian participants before the Jewish guests, for the terrible sins of Christians in the past to the Jewish people. But it certainly bears repeating, in keeping with this season of repentance, that we Christians have a lot to repent about.
The horrors of forced conversion, in which Jews were given the choice of conversion to Christianity or death; the horrors of the Inquisition and the Crusades, in which thousands of Jews were killed across Europe; of the Russian pogroms and the Nazi death camps, all these were perpetrated largely by Christians, and often in the name of Jesus! What a horrible abomination of our faith! What a horrible deception of Christianity by the forces of evil!
Fortunately, many Christians around the world are waking up to the evils of our actions in the past, and our participation in the work of the enemy against the Jewish people. Many have also been waking up to the origins of our own religion in Judaism, and the terrible losses to our faith that took place when we rejected those Jewish roots, and turned against the Jewish people. But I hope I am speaking for all of us here tonight when I say that we are here today because God has opened our eyes to the sins of the past and to the debt that we owe to Israel. And we are committed to never again allow hatred and hostility to blind our eyes to the teachings of our religion and to showing compassion to our fellow man. As our founder Jesus, Yeshua, himself a Jew, put it,
Salvation is from the Jews in John 4:22. And as Shaul, the apostle Paul, put it in Romans 11:28-29,
From the standpoint of God’s choice, they (the Jewish people) are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are unchangeable.
Sometimes when I speak here in the Philippines about our need to repent as Christians for the events of the past, someone will challenge me,
But the people who did all these horrible things, surely they were not real Christians. Whether or not they were truly saved is something that only God can know. But there is no question that the large majority of them identified themselves as and were seen by others to be sincere Christians. And while we may at first want to reject these people and distance ourselves from them as much as possible, I think we need to draw an important lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. For in the Bible, Israel, too, often went astray from God. But God continued to call out to them as his people, and their history, even in going astray from God, is part of the sacred history of the Bible. Just as the Jewish people identify with their people throughout time, in spite of their failings, I think we too as Christians must identify even with the Christians who have failed horribly in the past, if for no other reason than that by studying the past, we recognize our own weakness, and we can learn to never repeat those mistakes again.
I am sometimes also challenged,
But we Christians in the Philippines have never been part of the horrible actions against the Jewish people. Why should we repent for them? Fortunately, it’s true that Filipinos have been remarkably free from anti-Semitism. The Philippines can rightly be proud of its vote for the creation of the State of Israel in 1947, and the present positive relationship between the Filipino government and Israel. As Filipinos you can be proud of your many countrymen and women who serve with Christian grace and love in Israel, many as caregivers, where they have earned a good reputation with the Israeli people and Israeli employers.
But let me ask you a question. How many here were raised believing that the Jews killed Jesus? Is that what the Bible says? No, the Bible says that the Roman soldiers killed Jesus. So you, right here in the Philippines, have been taught the same lie that rests at the bottom of all Christian anti-Semitism. And for that you have something to repent about. We must also repent, because the actions of Christians have brought shame on the name of Jesus, Yeshua, a shame that extends to us, even if we were not personally involved in those actions.
I have also been challenged here in the Philippines with this question:
But what about all the Biblical prophecies that foretell the sufferings of the Jewish people? Surely it was God’s will that they suffer. That the Jewish people would encounter great times of suffering is surely mentioned in the Bible, as the greatest sages amongst the Jewish people themselves have recognized over the years. Even recently, the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel acknowledged that the sufferings of the Jewish people are a fulfillment of prophecy, though many were upset by his remarks because he included in them the horrible suffering of the Holocaust. But to adapt an expression from an early Christian Jew, Melito of Sardis (2nd cent.),
If they had to suffer, it did not have to be through you. If they had to be dishonored, it did not have to be by you. If they had to be judged, it did not have to be by you... Christians should have been the greatest friends of the Jewish people through their many years of suffering. We should have stood alongside them, and shown love to them, as many are starting to do in our generation. But instead of obeying the one we call Messiah and Son of God, we disobeyed him, and made his name a curse among the Jewish people, instead of a blessing. By coming here today, I believe you join me in seeking to reverse the curse that Christians became for so many generations, and to point Christianity back toward its original vision and its original Jewish heart: a heart to bring good and to do good to all, and especially to the Jewish people.
To achieve this, we must do teshuvah, we must repent. And this is the season of repentance, the season when the blast of the shofar calls us to repent, and points us to the Day of Atonement, which reminds us that by God’s grace our sins can be taken away, and we can be changed.
No wonder the Hebrew nickname for this time of year is Yamim Nora’im, Days of Awe, days when we are confronted with the most exalted teaching of the Jewish religion: the splendor of God’s grace revealed in his awesome power to forgive, to renew our spirits, and to change us. As the festival expression goes: “May you be inscribed (in the book of Life) for a good year.” And may it be a year filled with the awesome presence of the Almighty.