Rosh Hashanah, which literally means the head or first of the year, commemorates the creation of the world. Rosh Hashanah is commonly known as the “Jewish New Year.” It is celebrated on the first and second days of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, the month called Tishri.
Rosh Hashanah also commemorates some of the most dramatic events in Israel’s history: God remembering Sarah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah; Isaac being born on Rosh Hashanah; and Hannah being remembered on Rosh Hashanah.
Depending on the solar calendar, Rosh Hashanah occurs in September or October. Following Jewish custom that the day begins with sundown, Rosh Hashanah will begin this year at sundown on Sept. 6. Even though Rosh Hashanah is called the Jewish New Year, the month of Nissan, in which Passover is celebrated, is the first month of the Jewish calendar.
The commandment to observe what is called Rosh Hashanah is found in Leviticus 23:24-25 and Numbers 29:1. The Bible refers to the observance as the “day of shofar blowing.” According to Jewish tradition, Abraham offered to sacrifice his only son Isaac on the first day of Tishri. God caused a ram to appear and be sacrificed instead.
Blowing the shofar or ram’s horn is an integral part of Rosh Hashanah. (The shofar is not blown if the holiday falls on the Sabbath.) The shofar is made from the horn of any clean animal, except from the horn of an ox or cow, which might recall the incident of the golden calf in the wilderness.
Rosh Hashanah is unique among Jewish holidays because it is both serious and festive. It is a time of spiritual renewal, repentance, prayer and charity. A sense of judgment permeates Rosh Hashanah. A common greeting on the first night of Rosh Hashanah is, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” The practice of sending New Year greeting cards containing these words is popular on Rosh Hashanah.
On Rosh Hashanah, God judges people based on their actions during the previous year. Through true repentance, prayer and acts of charity between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, 10 days later, people can erase their misdeeds of the previous year and change God’s judgment before it is “sealed” on Yom Kippur.
The 10 days between the two festivals are called the High Holy Days or Days of Awe. Yom Kippur, also called the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day of the Jewish year. Before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to offer sacrifices for the people’s sins.
Today, Jews ask God for forgiveness based upon their acts of repentance during the 10 days since Rosh Hashanah. It is customary among Jews to avoid marriage between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to direct one’s energies towards repentance.
On the afternoon of the first day, a person may go to a stream of flowing water and empty his or her pockets into the river, symbolizing casting off of sins (Mic 7:19). The custom of casting breadcrumbs upon the water is an alternative ritual, which also symbolizes the desire that sins be carried away.
Most kinds of work are suspended on Rosh Hashanah; much of the day is spent in the synagogue where an expanded liturgy is used. The liturgy reminds Jews of God’s kingship, providence and revelation. Scripture is read from the Torah, Psalms and the Prophets.
Rosh Hashanah is also a festive celebration. Preparations include bathing, cleaning the house, haircuts and wearing new clothing on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. A husband is expected to buy new clothing or jewelry for his wife. Children are given treats. Candles are lit. Foods representing joy and blessing are eaten at the night meals; guests are welcomed in homes. Prayers are recited for a good new year.
Another popular observance is eating apples or bread dipped in honey, symbolizing a wish for a sweet new year. This practice contrasts with the practice of eating the bitter herb, usually horseradish, during the celebration of the Passover. Sour or pickled foods are avoided on Rosh Hashanah.
Although practices have been added to modern Rosh Hashanah liturgy, the Jew is reminded that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob entered into the history of the Jewish people in centuries past, and that he is still at work in the lives of his people to bring them back to him.
Gary Leazer is the founder and president of the Center for Interfaith Studies, Inc.