Party Like It’s 5779!
The High Holidays are upon us, and Israel is once again taken on its annual journey of declaring blessings over the new year on Rosh Hashanah (Feast of Trumpets), soul-searching and repenting for the past year on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and culminating with celebration and fellowship on Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles).
Around this time of year, we get numerous questions about these celebrations and how Christians can join in these Biblical celebrations. You should know going in, that in order to celebrate proper like a Jew, you have to enjoy singing, dancing, eating and being around other people doing the same.
The journey begins with the blowing of the shofar for the new Jewish calendar year. On the eve of Sept 9th of this year, the Jewish calendar will tick its year to 5779, counting the years since creation. If you’re a stickler for detail, you may have noticed in the Scriptures that the first month of the year according to the law of Moses is in the Spring near the time of Passover – the month of Nissan.
However, there is no holiday associated with that first day in Nissan (other than the usual noting of the new moon), and enough Jewish scholars decided that to the best of their understanding the world was created around the first week of the 7th Biblical month. So the Feast of Trumpets became the official New Year celebration. If you still disagree with the appropriateness of considering Rosh Hashanah as the Jewish New Year, don’t worry, Jews pride themselves in never coming to a unified consensus on any one thing.
Rosh Hashanah is similar to the internationally celebrated New Year in that it is celebratory. The shofar is blown, and prayers are said and sung. We eat the many seeds of the pomegranate to symbolize the desire for a fruitful year and dip apples in honey so the year will be sweet as well.
While New Year’s celebrators around the world may take a moment or two to consider the previous year and the coming one, Jews will take 10 days to ponder their life and culminate this time with repentance and fasting on the Day of Atonement. This remarkable tradition breaks down at the forgiveness of sins part. The Bible says forgiveness of sins requires the shedding of blood. So while we can forgive each other, there is no temple and therefore no sanctioned way to truly receive forgiveness from God. Therefore, as believers, already having received remission of sins, the Day of Atonement is a day where we pray for the salvation of Israel. We pray as their hearts are focused heavenward that their eyes will be opened to accept the final sacrifice already offered.
While it is a solemn day, Yom Kippur is my favorite day of the year to be in Israel. No one drives. Everyone is home from work, and the land feels at peace. Families walk to the local synagogue for prayers, and kids ride their bikes on the many deserted roads and highways. It is a unique experience you will not find anywhere else in the world.
Understanding the need for more than just a repentant heart on the day of Atonement, Orthodox Jews developed the tradition of swinging a chicken over the heads of individuals as they renounce their erroneous ways. They then slaughter the chicken before donating it for the needy to eat. While there is no biblical precedent for this, the one sobering thing this practice offers is the effect of watching an animal die because of the choices you’ve made.
Almost as soon as the sun sets – after Israelis enthusiastically break their fast with a hearty meal – you will begin to hear the hammering sounds of sukkah building. A sukkah is a temporary structure made of wood or metal that is lined with sheets and topped with palm branches or bamboo. Israelis will eat meals in this structure for the entire week-long holiday of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), and the more dedicated ones will sleep in it as well.
The question now is, how can you take part in these celebrations from your corner of the world?
Remember the Point.
The point of God’s Feasts is to celebrate or commemorate what He has done. During the Feasts, the story of God’s greatness associated with that Feast is retold. We should walk away from such a time simultaneously in awe of who God is and what He has done, as well as overjoyed that He has chosen us to take part in the story.
Each holiday has a slew of songs, prayers and traditions, most of which you can find online. There are appointed times to blow the shofar, specific types clothes to wear and numbers of candles to light. However, if at any point, the traditions and celebrations become burdensome, or result in conflict with those around you, you’ve missed the point.
It almost goes without saying, but just in case it wasn’t clear: You can’t have a feast without food. Eating meals together is a bonding experience and is considered an act of worship when you eat in unity before the Lord. So make sure you don’t turn the event into a Bible study without food. Having said that, if you’re wanting to spend Yom Kippur fasting alongside believers in Israel, fasting collectively helps the time go by faster and makes for a fuller prayer experience. And of course, don’t forget to end the fast with a feast.
Parties are best enjoyed with people. The same goes for feasts. If you’ve built a sukkah, invite friends and family to join in the celebration, even if it’s just for one meal. Then dive into the story of God’s faithfulness to the Children of Israel in the desert and why you’ve built a temporary shelter. As a family, we always discuss the temporary nature of the sukkah – just like earth is our temporary home. You can also look up Israeli songs to play in the background; most of them are great for dancing, and some are even simple enough for you to sing along.
Consider Your Surroundings
As exciting as it may feel to build a sukkah and eat or even live in it for a week, consider the safety and practicality of where you live. Many Israelis build their sukkah on their patio and sleep there. This is both because yards are rare in Israel as well as ensures people off the street don’t try to join your party at 2am.
You can also consider the option of spending the week with friends at a camping ground. Some people choose to sleep in store-bought tents and eat in a nearby sukkah together. Finally, don’t forget to consider the weather. Being in the desert, we rarely deal with rain during this time. A drizzle isn’t a problem, but a thunderstorm is no time to be outside.
Don’t Forget the Blessing! – a Hebrew Lesson
Many stories have been written about the staggering number of successful Jews around the world. From entertainment to science, it seems Jews have more influence per capita than any other people group. Their influence is so noted that conspiracy theories have spread in some cultures that Jews have a secret plan to take over the world. If they really knew Jews, they’d know that even if they wanted to, Jews wouldn’t ever agree with each on how to take over the world, let alone how to rule it once it was conquered.
So what is the secret to Jewish success? There is not one answer to this question, but I believe words play a huge role in this success.
Jewish holidays are uniquely designed to accommodate the involvement of children. Here, Israel’s president decorates the sukkah with local school kids.
While the Children of Israel are seemingly famous for complaining every chance they get, the truth is Jews bless God and each other as a habit. Even in modern Israeli culture, a typical response to, “How are you?” is, “May His name be blessed!”. Families gather weekly around the Shabbat dinner table to praise God, and fathers bless their children and wives. Holidays and holy days are full of liturgical declarations of blessing. And even when Jews speak of the dead, they add, “May the memory of him be blessed.”
A fascinating truth about words can be missed when translating the Bible from Hebrew into other languages. In Hebrew, the word for “word” and “thing/stuff/matter” is the same. God created things with the spoken word because His words were in essence “matter.” And what He spoke came into existence as He spoke it. Seeing as we are created in His image, our words carry weight as well. That is why we are encouraged to bless each other and discouraged from cursing. Our words matter because our words create matter.
When you hear people speak evil of you, you might feel a physical stabbing pain or experience loss of energy or depression. You are experiencing the reality they are creating with their words. And no, we can’t stop the world from speaking ill, but just like showering to wash the dirt off after a long day, we can counter their cursing by speaking blessings. Thankfully, blessings spoken in the name of God are more powerful than any spoken word. It’s no secret that Israel has many cursing her name. But thankfully, Israel also has people around the world speaking blessing over her people in the name of the living God.
So don’t forget the blessing! Bless your family. Bless your friends. Bless your boss, bless your authorities (whether you voted for them or not), bless your neighbor, and especially bless that person that annoys you the most. Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone is going through struggles – and some people have no one speaking life into their situation. A blessed version of that frustrating person will be more enjoyable to be around. So bless them daily, weekly, monthly – and twice on holidays.
Kobi and Shani Ferguson
Yeshua Israel Ministries is based in Jerusalem, Israel
You can also give via mail. Send check to our U.S. office: