The three most popular meals in the Jewish family calendar are the Chanukah family dinner, the Passover Seder, and Rosh Hashanah evening. All right, I'll throw in Thanksgiving for good will. Where does the Rosh Hashanah evening dinner come from? We have a fascinating description of the celebration of Rosh Hashanah in TaNaKh. It is found in the book of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah 8 The entire people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses…. On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the assembly…He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Torah... and the Levites explained the Teaching to the people, while the people stood in their places. They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it… so they understood the reading. Nehemiah…Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were explaining to the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God: you must not mourn or weep," for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Torah. He further said to them, "Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not mourn, for your rejoicing in the LORD is the source of your strength."
Nehemiah and Ezra are the leaders of the Jewish people who return around 535 b.c.e from Babylonia to Judea, to resettle the land of Israel, and to rebuild the Temple. The Jewish people are returning from exile. They know their ancestors were exiled as punishment for sins committed during the first Temple. They have to start Jewish life all over again in the shadow of the calamity they brought upon themselves. On their first Rosh Hashanah, Ezra gathers the people, not too far from what is today, the Wall. He opens the scroll of the Torah of Moses. He reads the entire Torah to the people. He does this on a large wooden stage, the people stand for nearly half a day, listening faithfully to the recitation of the Torah. Following that, being the great educator that he was, he sends other educators into the audience to translate, to explain, and to teach the Torah.
At this point, something amazing happens. The people begin to weep and cry. They go in to deep mourning, because after listening to the educators, they knew why they were exiled. They went into deep mourning. It is at this moment that Nehemiah transforms Rosh Hashanah. He says to them, do not cry, do not weep, do not engage in mourning. This is a day in which you should eat delicious food and drink wonderful drinks. It is a day in which you should send packages, gifts of food to your fellow Jews. This day is sacred to God. Your happiness and celebration of Rosh Hashanah is what gives you courage and strength. And then we are told that the people went home, made great meals, and sent the packages of food in celebration to their friends.
This is the only reference to the celebration of Rosh Hashanah in the Hebrew bible. This gives birth to the great Rosh Hashanah evening family dinner, which huge numbers of Jews celebrate throughout the world. The optimism reflected in this passage is the key to Rosh Hashanah. When the Torah was read and the people realized how just two or three generations earlier their ancestors had sinned and earned exile, they were seized with grief that threatened to turn Rosh Hashanah into a day of mourning, or a fast day. When Ezra and Nehemiah saw this happening they told them to do the opposite, rejoice, for in the celebration of the Holiday they will find strength to renew Jewish life. Jewish celebration mean sitting down at that most sacred of places, the family dinner table, and renewing life and purpose as we do every year at the Rosh Hashanah family dinner. Hats off to Ezra and Nechemia!
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is the Judaic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.