What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Rosh Hashanah, the final days of Ramadan and the Great Navratri


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What’s the Spiritual Season?
(September 14 to 20, 2009)
By Stephanie Fenton

IT’S A LIVELY WEEK! Millions of Muslims honor the most important night in Islamic history and, later in the week, they hope to sight a crescent of the moon that will signify Eid al-Fitr (or “ul-Fitr”), the end of Ramadan. Jews begin their High Holidays with Rosh Hashanah. And, Hindus spend nine nights honoring the nine forms of the divine goddess Durga in the great Navratri (the photo at top today shows some of the holiday lights). Read all about these observances and events below …

WEDNESDAY, millions of Muslims are awake all night as they commemorate the most important night in Islamic history: Laylat al Qadr, the Night of Decree or the Night of Measures. The Prophet Muhammad never precisely revealed the date of this night, although Islamic tradition holds that it occurs sometime during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Historically, Muslims believe the observance should be an odd-numbered night in this portion of the month, and many regard the 27th day of the month of Ramadan as the most fitting. (However, traditions vary and our Shia Muslim neighbors celebrated this important event earlier.)
    Muslims believe that during the month of Ramadan, the Quran came down to Earth and that the first verses were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims take advantage of this important night by praying for forgiveness and salvation; it’s said that he who asks forgiveness on this night will have his desire granted—as well as his fate determined—for the next year.
    According to the Quran, Laylat al Qadr is called “better than 1,000 months.” Since the average person’s lifespan can be estimated around 1,000 months, Muslims hold that a person keeping one holy and sincere Laylat al Qadr receives a lifetime’s worth of rewards from God. Thus, Laylat al Qadr is the most important night in a Muslim’s life.
    This Ramadan, efforts to build bridges of understanding with Islam are widespread. In England, London Mayor Boris Johnson is urging non-Muslims to fast for a day in order to better understand their Muslim neighbors, co-workers and friends. A recent news article reported on the mayor’s appeal to non-Muslims after visiting the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre: “Increase your understanding and learning, even fast for a day with your Muslim neighbor and break your fast at the local mosque.” (Read the full article here). 

At sundown on FRIDAY, the Jewish year 5770 begins! It’s the start of the High Holidays with Rosh Hashanah, which means “head of the year” or “day of remembrance” in Hebrew and is popularly called the Jewish New Year. Most Jews celebrate for two days, commemorating the creation of humanity as part of the creation of the world. Many Jews believe they are judged for the coming year in this holiday period, so they may greet one another with phrases such as “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” Apples with honey and other sweet foods are typically consumed, to symbolize a sweet new year.
    Since this observance is a day typically spent in prayer and in the synagogue, a common practice is the blowing of 100 notes per day with a ram’s horn. When this horn is blown, it creates a trumpet-like noise, meant to “awaken” a person from his figurative sleep (click here to hear the ram’s horn). Many Jews prepare themselves for judgment on Rosh Hashanah. One traditional illustration of this holiday depicts God on a throne while the
people of the world pass. As each person passes for
judgment, God holds a book that contains all of his or her deeds.
    Readings include the family story of Sarah, Hagar, Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, encouraging believers to reflect on improving their own lives.
    After prayer in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, the faithful will sometimes offer additional prayers at naturally occuring bodies of water, such as rivers, ponds and oceans, in a practice known as Tashlich. Beads, pebbles or bread crumbs are thrown into the water, meant to rid a person of his or her sins.
    In the evening, a Rosh Hashanah Seder is sometimes prepared, created of foods that are symbolic. The words for some foods are puns in the Hebrew or Aramaic language with each pun suggesting a prayerful appeal to God. Even those who do not prepare a full Seder, Rosh Hashanah meals can consist of round challah bread, meant to represent the cycle of the year, or the heads of fish to represent the head of the year, and pomegranates, served to symbolize a year of sweetness (pomegranates predate apples and honey as a Rosh Hashanah food, although apples and honey have since gained great popularity).
    Pomegranates are a big hit these days in America—more than 1,800 food products now contain pomegranates—but they have long been a part of Jewish history. As a native fruit of biblical Israel, pomegranates come into season in September (coinciding with Rosh Hashanah). Pomegranates are regarded as containing 613 seed, as well—the same number as the commandments Jews observe. In addition, artistic representations of pomegranates top many ancient Torah scrolls.

Also at sundown on FRIDAY, Muslims say goodbye on Jum’at al-Wada, also known as “Farewell Friday.” Jum’at al-Wada is not an official festival, although many devotees recognize this as the last Friday of the month of Ramadan and the Friday preceding Eid al-Fitr.

Starting on SATURDAY,many Hindus dance, feast and worship for nine nights during Navratri, the festival devoted to the nine forms of female divinity. With great devotion, Hindus honor the Divine Mother (Durga) and nine of her forms, as each form represents a trait that influences her devotees. Although there are three Navratris celebrated in the Hindu year today, this-Sharad Navratri, which falls during the autumn season, is the greatest of them all.
    Sharad Navratri, also known simply as Navratri, recognizes the slaying of Mahisasura, a demon, by Durga. Festivals vary by region, and in West Bengal, the last four days of the festival are celebrated in the largest event of the year, known as Durga Puja. During Durga Puja, exquisite, life-size clay idols of Durga slaying Mahisasura are displayed in temples. After being worshipped, these idols are immersed in a river. In Western India, the UK and U.S., a Garba dance is performed during Navratri. Some believers around the world offer prayers and fast during Navratri, as this is a time believed to be auspicious for beginning new ventures. Many devotees prepare sweet foods, dress up in new clothing and attend nightly performances. (Here’s an article from the Times of India that illustrates how seriously Navratri is taken by most Hindus. Various professionals in India are interviewed in this story, as they each take a leave of work during Navratri and perform music for thousands during the nine nights.)
    Typically, the festival is split into three sections: For the first three days of Navratri, the goddess of valor is worshipped; during the second three days, the goddess of wealth is worshipped; and during the final three days, the goddess of knowledge is worshipped. Navratri culminates with Mahanavami, the day when a rite known as Kanya Puja is performed in some Hindu and Indian communities. For Kanya Puja, nine young girls who represent the nine forms of Durga are worshipped. The young girls have their feet washed, as a sign of respect, and are offered new clothing.

SUNDAY marks the end of Ramadan for many Muslims in a great celebration known as Eid al-Fitr. Due to the fact that the end of Ramadan is marked by the sighting of the crescent moon, the actual day of Eid al-Fitr may be marked differently in various countries or even by various families within a single Muslim community. Some larger mosques may host Eid festivities Sunday and again on Monday to account for the diversity of views on the precise date. North America’s largest Muslim Center, the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, published Ramadan calendars this year listing “probability of Eid al-Fitr” on both Sunday and Monday.
    It’s a lively and happy time, each year. Muslims share greetings and news of the Eid via phone and Email, converging on common prayer times and family meals. This often is a time when Muslims take days off work, each year.
    After an entire month of fasting, Muslims typically rise early in the morning, shower and put on their best clothing. After a small breakfast, commonly during which date fruits are consumed, devotees attend an Eid prayer at a mosque, square or even in an open field. After a sermon following the Eid prayer, many will ask for forgiveness and help for all living beings and give to charity in a ritual known as zakat. Many Muslims greet one another with “Blessed
Eid” or other similar greetings, which vary by country and
tradition. Following prayers and the sermon, the faithful often visit family and friends. According to tradition, the archangel Gabriel descended upon each of the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad during Eid al-Fitr.
    In 2007, New York City’s Empire State Building was lit green in honor of Eid, and each year, Muslim women around the world cook elaborate meals that often include dry fruits, sweetmeats, rice and vermicelli. Gifts are often presented to children by elders, and brothers visit married sisters to bring new clothes, bangles or money.
    The first Eid was marked by the Prophet Muhammad in 624, and Muslims recognize this time to not only feast after fasting, but to thank Allah for the divine strength provided during the previous month.

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