A different kind of New Year

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

The term New Year automatically evokes excitement, anticipation, fireworks and lots of celebration. So, when I got invited by an ambassador to attend dinner to learn about their New Year rituals, well of course I happily agreed. For starters, I realized that while the Philippines takes credit for having the earliest and longest Christmas holidays in the world, it turns out that in their country, our host celebrates the New Year on the 26th of September to be exact. Our host was the Ambassador of Israel to the Philippines Ilan Fluss and his wonderful wife Gila, who welcomed members of media covering different fields.

As a background, the couple are quite familiar with the Philippines since it’s their second posting after the ambassador held a lower rank approximately 27 years ago. I’ve interviewed the ambassador online on Agenda-Cignal TV, but this was our first face to face meet up along with a room full of media professionals. What surprised me was how the couple worked effortlessly as a team welcoming guests, coordinating their staff, constantly giving credit and acknowledging their hard work as they got started with a “program” that felt more like a storytelling being given by a history professor. No, it was not a “Twas the night before Christmas” sort of thing, but a narrative about the solemn observation of the Jewish “New” year. Unlike the Asian or Western celebrations, The Jewish New Year is a time of contemplation, a solemn remembering of your past life, what needs to be improved, seeking forgiveness.

Rosh Hashanah (Ha-sha-Nah), which is two days long, is observed with prayer, serious reflection, established rituals such as the blowing of the ram’s horn or trumpet (Shofar blasts) which is an observed commandment or Mitzvah. The ram’s horn is blown successive times; a short one, three short blasts, several repetitive blasts and one very long one which the ambassador demonstrated. The blowing of the ram’s horn is commemorative of Jewish events dating back to the time of Abraham, the time when a ram was bleating or crying as it was caught in a thicket and became the replacement sacrifice provided by God in exchange for Isaac.

They partake of sweet foods such as dates and apple slices dipped in honey, symbolic of the prayer or desire to have a sweet new year. Added to the presentation were pomegranates, also a sweet fruit but full of seeds used as a symbolism of many potential good deeds that you pray will bear fruit in your life in the coming New Year.

Ambassador Fluss also shared that aside from the sweets or new fruits in the new year, Jews would symbolically include a fish head or a ram’s head following the Old Testament declaration: “So that we may be like the head and not the tail.”

When I pointed out that Rosh Hashanah was comparatively serious and somber compared to the chaotic war-like explosions of New Year in the Philippines, Ambassador Ilan quickly pointed out that they have a special holiday where Jews are encouraged to drink alcohol enough to be tipsy or mildly intoxicated. It is the day of Purim when they drink up till they are giddy. But this particular holiday is not alcohol-based or in support of some local winery. It is a day that traces its roots deep into Jewish history to the time of Queen Esther or “The Book of Esther” (The Megillah) where Ahasuerus, who reigned from India to Ethiopia, decided to depose his belligerent wife on the advice of his wise men. The account tells how a beauty search was conducted and Esther, a young Jewish woman, won over all the candidates and became the new queen.

Later on, an issue erupts between Haman, the king’s second in command, versus Mordecai, the adoptive uncle of Esther, because Mordecai would not bow or defer to Haman who was probably nothing more than an upgraded political appointee in his eyes. As Haman’s wrath increased, he plotted to destroy all Jews in the land by giving a false report to the king. When informed about this, Mordecai sent word to Queen Esther about the impending genocide to be done to the Jews.

The young queen reasons with Mordecai, pointing out that the rules prohibit her or anyone else from appearing before the king unless they have been summoned or face the pain of death. Mordecai writes back saying: “Do not think in your heart that you will escape in the king’s palace any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Esther’s reply: “Pray and fast for me and me and my maids will do likewise. And so, I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther was able to present her case before the king, Haman was hanged on the gallows that he built for Mordecai and the Jews were spared from the slaughter. It is said further down in the Megillah or the original version of the Book of Esther that after their victory over their enemies that Mordecai instructed the Jews to observe those days as: “Yemei Mishteh v’simchah” or days of drinking and rejoicing. It is said that because the historical account mentioned several drinking scenes, it may have given life to the practice of drinking four cups of wine, just enough to have the sweet fragrance of wine in your breath, but not enough to make you stinking drunk!

Thank you, Ambassador Ilan Fluss and Gila Fluss.

Shana Tova!!!


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