What is Rosh Hashanah?

Literally, ‘Rosh Hashanah’ means ‘Head of the Year’ because this holiday is held at the beginning of the Jewish calendar year. It is considered the birthday of the year because, on this day, G-d created Adam and Eve. Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the new year with various customs and traditions that are performed in the hope of securing a happy, healthy, abundant year ahead. This day is also known as the ‘Day of Judgement’ because we set the stage for repentance of the previous year, and pray for G-d to decree upon us a new year of health, happiness, wealth, and everything else we need or want. We believe that like our heads control the actions of our bodies, our actions on Rosh Hashanah affect everything that happens to us the entire year.

When is Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah takes place on the first day of the Jewish year, which is the 1st of Tishrei. The holiday takes place over two days. This year, the English dates are September 16th and 17th, which means that it starts at sundown on September 15th until after nightfall on September 17th.

What are the customs and traditions of this holiday?

Like every Jewish festival, we do not perform melachos on this day. The prohibitions include using electricity, cooking, working, and anything else prohibited on the Sabbath and the holidays. 

Additionally, there are specific customs and symbolisms associated with this day:

  • Shofar: A ram’s horn is blown 30 times after the Shachris prayer and then 70 times during the musaf prayer, culminating in 100 shofar blasts on each day of Rosh Hashanah (unless Shabbos coincides with one day, in which case the shofar is not blown). 

There are three types of shofar blasts:

    • Tekiah- One long blast
    • Teruah- Three shorter blasts
    • Shevarim- Nine staccato-like blasts

The shofar is blown to symbolize the trumpets that are sounded to mark the coronation of a king because we coronate G-d as our King on this day. It is also a reminder of the ram Abraham offered as a sacrifice to G-d in place of his son Isaac on this day. Finally, the blasts mimic the sound of a cry, reminding us to repent for our misdeeds and beg for a positive year to be decreed upon us.

  • Greetings: On Rosh Hashanah, Jews wish each other a ‘gemar chasimah tovah,’ which translates to ‘May you be inscribed for good, and sealed in the Book of Life.’ On both nights of Rosh Hashanah, there are different special greetings for males and females. The greeting translates to: ‘May you be inscribed for and decreed a good year.’
  • Prayers: There are specialized prayers for Rosh Hashanah that are longer and differently themed than a regular Shabbos or Jewish festival. The general themes of the prayers are:
    • Malchius– Crowning G-d as our King
    • Zichronus– Asking G-d to ‘remember’ us for the good
    • Shofrus– About the shofar we blow on this day
  • Tashlich: On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah (provided that it’s not Shabbos), it is customary to walk to a body of water such as the sea, a river, a lake, or a pond, which has fish. Everyone performs the Tashlich ceremony where we say a prayer and wish for all our sins to be transferred to the fish in the river. Some will place their hands in their pockets and pretend to physically remove sins from themselves and throw them into the water.
  • Simanim: Many specific foods are traditionally eaten on this day to symbolize our hopes and wishes for the coming year. Before eating each of the simanim, a special prayer is recited, verbalizing the reason for eating the food. Different communities have different foods that they traditionally eat.
    • Apple in honey- We dip a slice of apple (and some people also challah) into honey, in the hope of securing a ‘sweet new year.’
    • Head of a fish, sheep, or ram- Eaten to symbolize that we should be the ‘head and not the tail’ in the coming year.
    • Sweet carrots- Once again, so we merit having a sweet year. Another reason is that the yiddish word for carrots is ‘meren’ which means to multiply. We hope to increase our wealth and happiness in the coming year.
    • Pomegranate- We wish to have as many merits in the coming year as pomegranate seeds in a pomegranate.
    • Other foods people eat include black-eyed peas, gourd, beets, leek, and cabbage, among others.
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