Penny Faust, Oxford Jewish Congregation

TODAY is the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah. As well as being a time for celebrating the new year, Rosh Hashanah also marks the beginning of a series of High Holy Days: religious festivals occurring over a month in the early part of the autumn.

Rosh Hashona is the first of the 10 days of penitence, the period of time which is deliberately set aside for personal reflection and review between the new year and the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur.

We’re not very good at taking time out for reflection nowadays. The pressure is always on.

Even when we’re not actually working, we still check our emails, send texts, join the Twitter feed or update our Facebook pages.

And we’re even busy at the weekends or on our days off – it is very rare to set time aside to think, so rare that many people feel guilty because they feel they should be doing something.

So 10 days for reflection built into the annual calendar are a real blessing.

During this time, Jews are encouraged to review the past year’s events and try to learn from their experiences so that in the coming year they can do better.

It enables each individual to make a fresh start based on what has previously happened.

I have a good friend who says there is no such thing as failure, only the possibility of learning from feedback.

Rosh Hashanah enables us to use all of our experiences, both failures and successes in a positive way.

The focus is very much on individual responsibility. Jewish tradition teaches that our relationship with God is on an individual basis, not mediated by priests or rabbis.

And that responsibility is true for every aspect of our lives, whether we believe in God or not.

We all make choices and those choices have consequences, both for us and for others.

And this review is not just limited to the intellectual side of our lives. The last of the 10 days is the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when we make our peace with God.

We are told we cannot make our peace with God if we are at odds with fellow human beings.

So this time is also used to try to be honest with ourselves on an emotional and personal level too – we have to make our peace with people we may have offended or had arguments with, so that our fresh start can be complete.

The new year does not just require intellectual effort.

We’re also involved in religious services and rituals that are both family and community based.

Families try to get together over the new year.

At home we light candles to sanctify the festival, say blessings over bread and wine, and eat apples dipped in honey, symbolic food to set us off on a sweet new year.

And we attend services in the synagogue, in part as an expression of our commitment to community, but also to provide spiritual input to replenish our souls.

The distinctive feature of the new year services is the sounding of the Shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet, which is blown in the synagogue.

There is a real sense of excitement when the Shofar is being blown – adults manoeuvre themselves into positions where they can see what is happening, children stand on chairs, or creep close to watch.

It is an unmistakable and unique sound – a call to both community and individual faith.

The Shofar reminds us that every year each of us has the opportunity to start again, to make amends, and to renew our personal commitment to our faith and to humanity.