Rosh HaShanah (literally, “Head of the Year”) is the Jewish New Year, which marks the beginning of a 10-day period of prayer, self-examination and repentance. This period, known as the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe or High Holy Days), is widely observed by Jews throughout the world, many with prayer and reflection in a synagogue. There also are several holiday rituals observed at home.
Rosh HaShanah is celebrated on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which—because of differences in the solar and lunar calendar—corresponds to September or October on the secular calendar. Customs associated with the holiday include sounding the shofar, eating a round challah, and tasting apples and honey to represent a sweet New Year.
History of Rosh HaShanah
The origins of Rosh HaShanah are found in the Bible. The Book of Leviticus (23:24-25) declares: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of rest, a memorial proclaimed with the blowing of the shofar, a holy convocation.” Although this day eventually became Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, it was not originally known as such.
In ancient times, there were four “new years” in the Jewish calendar. Each had a distinct significance:
- The first of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the New Year of Kings, was the date used to calculate the number of years a given king had reigned.
- The first of the Hebrew month of Elul was the new year for tithing of cattle, a time when one of every 10 cattle was marked and offered as a sacrifice to God.
- The first of the Hebrew month of Tishrei was the agricultural new year, or the New Year of the Years.
- The 15th of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat, known as Tu BiSh’vat, was the New Year of the Trees.
Although the Torah refers to Nisan as the first month of the Jewish year, the first day of the month of Tishrei emerged as what we now know as Rosh HaShanah.
The Babylonians, among whom the Jews lived, marked a “Day of Judgment” each year. They believed that, on that day, a convocation of their deities assembled in the temple of the god Marduk. These gods, they held, renewed the world and judged each human being, inscribing the fate of every individual on the tablet of destiny. The legend was a powerful one, and Jews most likely borrowed elements from it in shaping Rosh HaShanah. The meeting of many deities evolved into a belief that the one God judged every Jew on that day, immediately inscribing the completely righteous in the Book of Life and consigning the completely wicked to a sad fate. Those “in between,” however, had ten days, concluding on Yom Kippur, in which to repent before the Book of Life was sealed for the New Year.
In addition to the biblical “holy convocation” and the transformed Babylonian “Day of Judgment,” the first of Tishrei also was associated with the anniversary of the creation of the world, Yom Harat Olam. For these three compelling reasons, the first day of the seventh month ultimately became the “official” Jewish New Year.
It was not until about the second century C.E. that the holiday acquired the name Rosh HaShanah, which first appeared in the Mishnah. Before then, however, the day had many other designations. The oldest name, found in the Torah (Numbers 29:1) is Yom T’ruah (Day of Sounding the Shofar). Two other names, undoubtedly reflecting Babylonian influence, were Yom HaZikaron (Day of Remembrance) and Yom HaDin (Day of Judgment). While those terms are still preserved in the liturgy and rabbinic literature, Jews all over the world today usually refer to Rosh HaShanah as the Jewish New Year.
Meanings and Customs
Although the holiday includes elements of joy and celebration, Rosh HaShanah is a deeply religious occasion. The customs and symbols of Rosh HaShanah reflect the holiday’s dual emphasis on both happiness and humility. Customs observed on Rosh HaShanah include the sounding of the shofar and eating special foods including round challah, which symbolizes the circle of life, and sweet foods for a sweet New Year. It is also customary to extend wishes for a good year. In Hebrew, the simple form of the greeting is “L’shanah tovah!”
Preparation for the High Holidays begins a full month before Rosh HaShanah. The entire Hebrew month of Elul is dedicated to readying ourselves for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Some congregations follow the custom of sounding the shofar at the end of each weekday morning service during Elul as a reminder of the approaching season.
Many Reform Jews celebrate one day of Rosh HaShanah, while others, together with Conservative and Orthodox Jews observe two days. Historically, North American Reform congregations have followed the calendar set forth in the Torah (Lev. 23:24; Num. 29:1), in which Rosh HaShanah is observed for one day, on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. However, this holiday differs from all other Jewish festivals because it is observed for two days even in the land of Israel, where all stores, schools and businesses are closed for the holiday. A growing number of Reform congregations have adopted the practice of observing a second day of Rosh HaShanah.
One very meaningful practice associated with Rosh HaShanah is Tashlich, a ceremony in which Jews go to a body of water, such as a river, stream, or ocean, to cast away their sins by symbolically tossing bread into the water. This physical act inspires us to remember our actions, right our wrongs, and refocus ourselves for the New Year.
Selichot, a Hebrew word meaning “forgiveness,” refers to the special penitential prayers recited by Jews throughout the High Holidays. Jews recite Selichot beginning late at night on the Saturday before Rosh HaShanah and again each morning on the days between the New Year and Yom Kippur. Reform congregations usually observe Selichot on the Saturday night just prior to Rosh HaShanah, a solemn and fitting preparation for 10 days of reflection and self-examination.
The shofar, made from the horn of a ram, is sounded throughout the High Holiday period, beginning during the preparatory days of Elul. It also is sounded during the Rosh HaShanah service and at the end of Yom Kippur. The shofar is always curved or bent, symbolizing our humility as we stand before God and confront our actions. The celebration that ultimately evolved into Rosh HaShanah was originally called Yom T’ruah (Day of Sounding the Shofar).
One of the world’s oldest wind instruments, the shofar played an important role in Jewish history long before it became associated with Rosh HaShanah. It is mentioned throughout the Bible as a central element in ritual observance. For example, the shofar was sounded at the new moon and at solemn feasts. The Book of Exodus (19:16; 20:15) describes how the shofar was blown at Mt. Sinai to prepare the people for the giving of the Torah. The Book of Joshua (6:1-20) details the blowing of the shofar as part of the conquest of Jericho.
There are four different shofar “calls,” each with a unique name, used during the High Holidays: t’kiah (one long blast), sh’varim (three short blasts), t’ruah (nine quick blasts) and t’kia g’dolah (one very long blast). Today, these sounds suggest different approaches to our annual cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of our activities of the past year), which we review during this season. The shofar blasts echo different rhythms and patterns in our daily lives. Various explanations surround the custom of blowing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah. The link with Yom T’ruah (Day of Sounding the Shofar) was an early one, but there are many others. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides viewed the sounding of the shofar as a call to repentance.
The most common explanation for blowing the shofar during the Rosh HaShanah service, however, derives from the story of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) in Genesis 22, which we read on the same day. The sacrifice of Isaac was averted when Abraham substituted a ram for the boy. Although the key message focuses on Abraham’s faith and against human sacrifice, the story also became a basis for use of a ram’s horn on Rosh HaShanah.
Challah, which literally means “dough,” refers to the special twisted loaf of bread eaten by Jews on Shabbat and other special occasions. The challah used on Shabbat is oblong; the challah eaten on Rosh HaShanah is round in shape. This custom has several explanations. One is that the round shape reflects the ongoing cycle of years and seasons. The most common interpretation is that the challah resembles a crown, symbolizing the kingship of God, a common theme throughout the High Holidays. As our thoughts turn to repentance and resolutions of self-improvement, the round challah reminds Jews that God is central to our people and to our faith. Learn how to make a round challah.
Apples and Honey
Over the centuries, Jews have commonly eaten apples, as well as challah, grapes, and other fruits dipped in honey, symbolizing their hope for sweetness in the year ahead. Learn more about the history of this Ashkenazic tradition.
In the Congregation
It is a mitzvah to observe Rosh HaShanah on the first of Tishrei. The day is known for the grand style of the prayers and rituals, including blowing the shofar, in the synagogue. The prayers follow the general structure of the special services that occur during the other Jewish festivals of Succot, Passover, and Shavuot. There are, however, a number of changes particular to Rosh HaShanah and the High Holidays. Special additions are made to prayers that emphasize themes of God’s sovereignty and judgment, along with our hope for God’s forgiveness. The penitential prayer Avinu Malkeinu is recited throughout the High Holidays.
Following an ancient practice of Babylonian Jews that is now observed throughout the world, the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are divided into 54 sections called parashat hashavua (the weekly portion). A different section is read each Shabbat, with special sections designated for each Jewish holiday. Often, these sections are thematically related to the holiday.
The Torah reading for Rosh HaShanah is Genesis 22:1-19, the Akeidah, or “binding of Isaac.” An alternate Torah reading, Genesis 1:1-2:3, which is the story of creation, is read in some Reform congregations that observe a second day of Rosh HaShanah on that day. The Haftarah, the selection from the prophetic books that accompanies Torah readings on Shabbat and holidays from I Samuel, is the story of Hannah. (Washofsky 118-119; see sources below)
Because Jewish holidays begin in the evening, it is customary to begin Rosh HaShanah with a family dinner and to attend services that night and again the following day. Rosh HaShanah includes many important moments and motifs – being awakened from our complacency with our own bad tendencies by the sound of the shofar and prayers reminding us that amidst all the things we cannot control, we can control our own conduct.
On erev Rosh HaShanah, we recite the festival candle blessing and Kiddush (blessing over wine). We also recite HaMotzi (blessing over bread) as usual, but the challah is round, not oblong. Finally, just before beginning the Rosh HaShanah meal, we customarily eat challah or apples dipped in honey. Some families also enjoy a pomegranate as a treat before the meal. According to legend, the number of seeds in the pomegranate reflects the number of good deeds you will do in the coming year.
During the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), usually on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, it is a tradition to go to a nearby body of water and symbolically cast away one’s sins or wrongdoings from the past year in a ceremony called Tashlich. One usually tosses breadcrumbs into the water. When done with members of a synagogue, this is usually done in the afternoon. The ritual is usually accompanied by the recitation of verses from Micah and Psalms. According to Micah 7:19, “God will take us back in love; God will cover up our iniquities, You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
This year, take some bread crumbs to a nearby lake or stream to perform this ceremonial casting away. You may choose to name your mistakes aloud quietly or just think them to yourself. Conclude by reading a meaningful verse about forgiveness or singing a song. Share any leftover bread with the birds and fish. Doing Tashlich with children is a wonderful teaching opportunity and a chance to enjoy some time outside together on this holy day.