The shofar won’t sound for the new year until Rosh Hashanah on Sept. 4 — unless you’re a guinea pig, cat, dog, donkey, sheep or rat.
In that case, the shofar sounded in a small number of Jewish venues across the country on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah La’Behema, or the new year for animals.
For the second straight year, one of the places recognizing the obscure but somewhat renewed holiday was Or Shalom Jewish Community, a Reconstructionist synagogue in San Francisco.
Originally one of the four new years on the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah LeMa’aser Behema, the new year for the tithing of animals, was related to counting animals intended for sacrificial offerings in the Temple. It occurs on the first day of Elul.
Recently the holiday has been revived and shifted to focusing on animals as creatures worthy of compassion, whose ill treatment in the industrial age wields an impact on all of creation.
“I feel so honored to be part of the tiny movement to bring back a reconstituted Jewish holiday, in the same way that the kabbalists in 16th-century Israel brought back the new year for the trees,” said Danny Brook, a member of Or Shalom who created the 1,800-word haggadah for the Aug. 7 service.
The service began: “Along with gatherings in New York City, Jerusalem and other holy places, we are gathered here at Or Shalom in San Francisco to celebrate this revived, renewed, and reconstructed ancient holiday, which had been dormant for nearly two millennia.”
In Judaism, services and lessons regarding animals and meat have tended to focus on biblical sacrifices, animals that are kosher for eating and laws about slaughter.
But these days, Brook said, the “righteous kashrut” movement is putting a larger focus onto how people interact with animals and food. There’s the Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek seal, for example, that seeks to mark kosher foods that meet certain standards for working conditions, ethical treatment of animals, conservation of natural resources and feeding the hungry.
“The widespread maltreatment of animals on industrial farms is inconsistent with Judaism’s beautiful teachings about compassion to animals,” Aharon Varady, the director of the Open Siddur Project, wrote in an op-ed for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “One way for Jews to respond to these inconsistencies is to restore and transform the ancient and largely forgotten Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah Lema’aser Beheima into a day devoted to considering how to improve our relationships with animals.”
Richard Schwartz, president emeritus of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America, has taken up the cause to make the new holiday a part of Jewish life today.
“Speak out against the many abuses of animals on factory farms,” he writes. “For example, the killing of male chicks immediately after birth at egg laying hatcheries; the crowding of hens in spaces so small they can’t raise even one wing; the debeaking of hens to avoid pecking (a natural instinct); the artificial impregnation of female cows annually so they will constantly be able to give milk; the removal of calves almost immediately after birth, often to produce veal in a very cruel process.”
Interest has been spreading, although exact numbers of congregations observing the new holiday are unavailable. But Schwartz definitely has inspired Brook and others at Or Shalom.
“He and a few others were scheming this for a couple years and we finally reconstructed the holiday last year,” Brook said.
This year’s Rosh Hashanah La’Behema seder was attended by about 10 people, although pets (and other animals) were not among the guests, as Congregation Ner Tamid, where Or Shalom holds its services, was not eager to have non-humans scurrying through its halls.
“Our rabbi [Katie Mizrahi] is open to doing a special ceremony for the blessing of pets, but it will have to wait for another time,” Brook said.
Participants brought vegetarian food to share, as well as reusable tableware, and took turns reading from Proverbs, Gandhi, Einstein, Maimonides and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wrote, “In relation to animals, all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka.”
Conversation topics — such as “how can we expand our compassion to animals?” — were addressed. At one point during the service, Mizrahi and Brooks’ son, 16-year-old Zev, gave the long blast of tekiah g’dolah simultaneously on the shofar.
Last year, Or Shalom celebrated the reconstructed holiday for the first time — at Shangri-La, a kosher Chinese vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco.
“We had a great time and no one in the restaurant seemed to mind or register shock, even when I blew the shofar,” Brook said.
This year’s service ended with: “May we all — humans and other animals — live together in a world of peace. Shanah Tovah! Happy New Year!”