Tomorrow may be Sept. 19, 2009, in the secular calendar, but the Jewish calendar marks the day as Tishrei 1, 5770, or Rosh Hashanah, the first day of a new year.
All Jewish holidays begin at sunset the prior day. (Jewish belief holds that any day runs from sunset to the following nightfall rather than beginning at midnight.) That pegs the start of the year 5770 to this evening at 5:17 p.m., San José time, when traditional lighting of candles just prior to sunset will welcome the new year.
Rosh Hashanah ushers in a 10-day period of reflection known variously as the High Holidays or the Days of Awe. It concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar.
Yom Kippur falls on the 10th day of the new month, beginning at sunset on Sept. 27 in the secular calendar and lasting until nightfall the following evening.
The table setting for Rosh Hashanah forms part of the symbolism that fills the holiday.
While apples are a traditional December holiday treat for Costa Ricans – much of the fruit here is imported from the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon – the Jewish community in this country and around the world makes special use of apples at this time of year.
Apples – the sweeter, the better – and honey play a prominent role for the new year and are two of Rosh Hashanah’s most recognizable symbols, says Chana Spalter, co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Costa Rica.
“They represent our traditional wish to each other for a ‘sweet new year,’” Spalter tells The Tico Times.
In fact, the customary Hebrew blessing that accompanies the dipping of apples in honey concludes with the words, “May it be your will to renew us for a good and sweet year,” in recognition of the Jewish belief that a person’s destiny for the coming year is determined during the High Holidays and sealed on Yom Kippur.
Outside of Israel, Rosh Hashanah is historically celebrated for two days, though not all Jewish communities follow that tradition. The second night of the holiday, custom holds that a fruit newly in season be sampled.
“This is Costa Rica,” Spalter says. “We have a lot of variety to choose from.”
On a number of levels, pomegranates – granadas in Spanish, rimonim in Hebrew – are a customary favorite new fruit to welcome the new year in Jewish households.
Tradition holds that the pomegranate contains 613 seeds, corresponding to the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, Spalter explains.
Mention of the fruit appears in various places in the Bible, its image being woven into the borders of robes of temple priests or being depicted on ancient coins.
Alas, pomegranates are not native to Central America and can be tough to find here, Spalter says. Those available in Costa Rica are usually small and dark green, rather than the plump, juicy pomegranates common to Israel, much of Asia and the southwest United States. (California has become one of the world’s largest cultivators of the fruit.)
“Someone usually comes through,’ Spalter says. She’s had local people, Jewish and non-Jewish, bring red pomegranates for her household and for distribution to others.
Spalter says she makes a point of serving a large variety of local fruit for that second-night tradition. With an always-large gathering at her table, including many visitors to Costa Rica, everyone is guaranteed to experience something new for the holiday from the fruit plate.
The green, plum-like jocote and the maroon, lychee-like rambutan are particular favorites this time of year. (Costa Ricans and expats know the latter fruit, with its distinctive spikes, as mamón chino.)
The serving of new fruit at Rosh Hashanah is accompanied by the traditional Hebrew Shehecheyanu blessing said by observant Jews in thanks for anything new.
“With the abundance of fruit we have year-round in Costa Rica,” Spalter says, “every day is really a Shehecheyanu day.”
San José’s synagogues will hold services beginning tonight in observance of the start of Rosh Hashanah, concluding with Yom Kippur at the end of the holiday period. Call for more information:
Beit Menachem/Chabad Lubavitch (Orthodox), 2296-6565, Rohrmoser, 20 m north of Citibank, .
B’nei Israel(Progressive/Reform), 2231-5243, La Sabana, 700 m west of Pops, old road to Escazú.