Rabbi Gary Atkins picks up the ram's horn, places his lips on its tip, puffs his cheeks and blasts a wailing note that's a little off-key. He tries again. Face red and lips puckered, he manages three short notes. Then, with the last breath left in his lungs, he goes for the last succession of notes, nine short roars.
It was good practice for today, when the sound of the ram's horn, or shofar, heralds the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana.
Rosh Hashana began at sundown Friday. The blowing of a ram's horn is symbolic of the story of Abraham and his son Isaac, whom God had commanded him to sacrifice, said Rabbi Atkins of Adas Yeshurun Synagogue.
"In Genesis 22, it says when Abraham took his son to the altar and raised his hand to sacrifice his son, an angel of the Lord called unto him and said not to lay his hand upon his son, for he knew he feared God," Rabbi Atkins said.
"And Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in a thicket by his horns, and he was able to sacrifice the ram, instead of his son."
The sounding of the shofar is a call to begin Rosh Hashana and a 10-day period of introspection called the Days of Awe, ending with Yom Kippur on Sept. 23, considered the most important day on the Jewish calendar.
Rosh Hashana, or celebration of the world, has a combination of themes, said Rabbi Atkins.
"It is judgment day, where we get a feeling of God judging our lives, but it is also a day where we realize that God is merciful and loves. He will accept sincere prayers and feelings that we are going to do better," he said.
Rosh Hashana will be celebrated today and Sunday at the Adas Yeshurun Synagogue, a modern traditional congregation, and on Sunday at the Congregation Children of Israel Temple, Augusta's Reform synagogue.
After Rosh Hashana celebrations, the Days of Awe will be a time of self-examination, said Rabbi Jordan Parr of the Congregation Children of Israel.
"During this 10-day period, we are supposed to go and search our souls to determine sins of omission and commission and ask for forgiveness for those we've wronged, Jew or non-Jew. Then we ask God to forgive us," he said.
On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, God forgives all wrongdoing, said Rabbi Zalman Fischer of the Chabad Center of Augusta, a Jewish educational center.
"This is a day God has set aside where he looks at the bright side of humans and emanates kindness and love to people and forgives our sins. This is a day man reconciles himself with God," Rabbi Fischer said.
Although these Jewish holidays are meant for celebration, they are being taken very seriously this year, said Rabbi Parr.
"Even though the holy days are still a major social event, they are being taken more seriously today because people are taking religion more seriously, period. There is more recognition that they are all parts of the same puzzle of life, and people are becoming more religious," he said.
Rabbi Fischer said packed synagogues mean much more.
"One way we can see what the holy days mean to people is watching the turnout at the synagogues. And the turnout is simply because they feel something deep within themselves, that they must be there for the services. It's the idea of God bringing out the good part of people, and the holiness of the day is expressed with all the people coming out," said Rabbi Fischer.
With more people attending services and younger generations becoming involved in the holy days, there has been some change in worship patterns, said Rabbi Parr.
"Basically, we've changed with the times. We are using a different prayer book, where the language is more modern, but has more traditional prayers and practices. We use more English in our services and more of the older men wear the head coverings than younger," he said.
Rabbi Atkins said the synagogues have also added more English to their services, with a new, modern prayer book.
"The idea is to maximize involvement of younger people and families," he said.
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