Rosh HaShanah: What Is It?

rosh hashanah

rosh hashanah

rosh hashanahMany people may have heard of Rosh HaShanah, but do not know what it is. Rosh HaShanah occurs every year in the fall, usually in September. This year it begins on Wednesday evening, September 24th.

The Jewish New Year is considered to be the beginning of the world. It is when the “Torah” – the five books that comprise Jewish text – is read again from the beginning, starting with the Book of Genesis. One of the central themes of Rosh HaShanah is to “return.” Some see this as a return to a connection with God. The day is celebrated at this time of year because traditionally the new year was celebrated with the harvest of the crops.

rosh hashanah
Apples are dipped in honey for a sweet and fruitful new year.

The day is marked with attendance at religious services in synagogue, beginning at sundown. Families and friends around the world dip apples into honey. They wish one another a sweet and fruitful new year with greetings of “Shanah Tovah” or “L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu,” which means “May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year.”

Religious Jews observe two full days of the Holy Day. As all Jewish holidays go from sundown to sundown, Rosh HaShanah concludes this year on Friday evening, September 26th, which is the beginning of another sacred (weekly) day in the Jewish tradition, “Shabbat,” the Sabbath.

The day on which Rosh HaShanah falls varies each year because the Jewish calendar goes according to the moon, not the sun like the Gregorian calendar in common use. The upcoming Jewish new year is 5775, adding 3,761 years to the year 2014. Jewish history began when Adam and Eve were created. It is not separated into B.C. and A.D. like the Christian calendar.

Similar to the secular practice of making New Year’s resolutions, Rosh HaShanah mandates that Jews examine their past deeds to plan for a better life in the coming year. The main action required during the High Holy Days is introspection and planning personal changes to make in the new year.

Just prior to Rosh HaShanah is a time of penitence called “Selichot” (“forgiveness”) in which prayers are recited at a midnight candlelit service the Saturday before Rosh HaShanah. At Selichot, the shofar is blown for the first time of the year. Selichot, Rosh HaShanah and the ten Days of Repentance that lead up to and include the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, comprise the High Holy Days or the days of awe.

During the evening Rosh HaShanah service, on Wednesday night, the shofar is blown again. The shofar is made from a ram’s horn and its trumpet-like sound heralds in the new year. It symbolizes awakening the soul towards the day of judgment or evaluation of the deeds of one’s past year.

rosh hashanah
The shofar is blown on Rosh HaShanah to herald in the new year. Click the link at the bottom to hear the sound of the shofar.

The mandate of Rosh HaShanah is to examine errors that each person has committed during the prior year. Before the beginning of the High Holy Days, during the ten days leading up to Yom Kippur, Jews consider what they need to ask forgiveness for, and who they need to ask. However, it is not enough to concentrate on mending one’s own ways. During the service, prayers are said for the entire community.

To symbolically represent personal letting go of wrongdoings, on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh HaShanah (Thursday, September 25th in 2014), Jewish congregations will visit flowing water, such as a creek or river. There, they will throw bits of bread into the water as a “casting off of sins” in a ritual called “tashlich.”

Rosh HaShanah is a sacred day within the Jewish calendar and even those Jews who do not attend services at other times of the year, come to synagogue on this day, as entire communities are brought together for spiritual renewal. Themes of Rosh HaShanah are forgiveness and renewal. The special meaning of Rosh HaShanah is emphasis on the relationship between God and humanity.

By Fern Remedi-Brown

Sound of the shofar: traditional Rosh HaShanah “music”

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4 thoughts on “Rosh HaShanah: What Is It?

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  3. As an update, Simchat Torah is the holiday where the start and end of Torah readings takes place. That will be Oct. 16-17 this year.

  4. Such an accurate description of this holy holiday. It captures the air of it and breaks down these days for someone who would be oblivious otherwise.

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