Rosh Hashanah

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Rosh Hashanah

, Rosh Hashana
the festival marking the Jewish New Year, celebrated on the first and second days of Tishri, and marked by penitential prayers and by the blowing of the shofar
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005

Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, Day of Remembrance)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Jewish), Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: 1 and 2 Tishri; between September 6 and October 4
Where Celebrated: By Jews all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Book of Life, Challah, Honey, Kittel, Shanah Tovah Cards, Shofar, Tashlikh Ceremony
Colors: Many Jews wear white clothing on Rosh Hashanah to remind themselves of the holiness and purity of the festival.
Related Holidays: New Year's Day, Yom Kippur


In Judaism, Rosh Hashanah is part of the new year and the beginning of the High Holy Days. Judaism is one of the oldest continuously observed religions in the world. Its history extends back beyond the advent of the written word. Its people trace their roots to a common ancestor, Abraham, and then back even farther to the very moment of creation.

According to Jewish belief, the law given to the Jewish people by God contained everything they needed to live a holy life, including the ability to be reinterpreted in new historical situations. Judaism, therefore, is the expression of the Jewish people, attempting to live holy (set apart) lives in accordance with the instructions given by God. Although obedience to the law is central to Judaism, there is no one central authority. Sources of divine authority are God, the Torah, interpretations of the Torah by respected teachers, and tradition. Religious observances and the study of Jewish law are conducted under the supervision of a teacher called a rabbi.

There are several sects within Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is characterized by an affirmation of the traditional Jewish faith, strict adherence to customs such as keeping the Sabbath, participation in ceremonies and rituals, and the observance of dietary regulations. Conservative Jewish congregations seek to retain many ancient traditions but without the accompanying demand for strict observance. Reform Judaism stresses modern biblical criticism and emphasizes ethical teachings more than ritualistic observance. Hasidism is a mystical sect of Judaism that teaches enthusiastic prayer as a means of communion with God. The ReconstrucRosh Hashanah

tionist movement began early in the twentieth century in an effort to "reconstruct" Judaism with the community rather than the synagogue as its center.

The Jewish year begins around the time of the AUTUMN EQUINOX (September 21-23), at the beginning of the month of Tishri. The first ten days of the month are known as the High Holy Days. The new year celebration, Rosh Hashanah, is observed on the first and second of these days, when God opens the sacred BOOK OF LIFE and judges people on the basis of their actions over the past year. The next several days are known as the Days of Penitence, a period during which Jews can influence their fate by making amends for the wrongs they have committed during the year. The tenth and last of the High Holy Days is YOM KIPPUR, the Day of Atonement, or the day on which their fates for the coming year are inscribed and sealed.

Unlike the secular observance of NEW YEAR'S DAY, Rosh Hashanah marks the start of a very solemn season. The story of Abraham is read in the synagogue, and the blowing of the SHOFAR serves as a call to penitence and a reminder of Abraham's willingness to obey God. Jews ponder their behavior and think about what they can do to make themselves better people. All debts from the past year are supposed to be settled before Rosh Hashanah, and many Jews ask forgiveness from their friends and families for any slights or transgressions they may have committed.

Rosh Hashanah is observed for two days in countries outside of Israel. Back in the days when travel was dangerous and difficult, and messages often failed to arrive on time, Jews living in foreign countries weren't sure exactly when certain holidays should be celebrated. In such instances they would observe two days, because one of them was bound to be correct. This gave rise to the custom of observing Rosh Hashanah, PASSOVER, SHAVUOT, and SUKKOT over a twoday period. This custom was retained for Jews living outside Israel, while Reform Jews and those living in Israel observe only one day.

The turning of the year was closely related to the turning of the seasons. At one time, the three great Jewish festivals (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot) may have been one great harvest festival. But today they are distinct.


Book of Life

The Book of Life is divided into three sections: one for the wicked, one for the righteous, and one for those who fall in between. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed in the Book of Life for good fortune in the coming year, while the wicked are condemned to death. Judgments about those who fall in between is made on YOM KIPPUR, which gives them time to repent and change their ways. It is for this reason that Jews often wish each other not only "Happy New Year" but "Have a good signature."


Challah is a special bread served on Rosh Hashanah that is braided and baked in a circular shape, symbolizing the roundness of the year and the cycle of the seasons. Sometimes it is shaped like a ladder, a bird, or a crown. The ladder serves as a reminder that people are judged on this day, and that some are destined to climb and prosper while others will descend and suffer. The bird is a symbol of God's mercy, which extends to even the smallest of animals. The crown is a symbol of the kingship of God, which Rosh Hashanah emphasizes.


It is customary at Rosh Hashanah to eat pieces of CHALLAH dipped in honey, which is symbolic of sweet life in the new year. It is also customary to eat a new fruit of the year, such as apples, dipped in honey, and to have honey cake for dessert.


During the morning service at Rosh Hashanah, it is customary for rabbis, cantors, and some adult male worshippers to wear a long white robe known as a kittel. It stands as a symbol of purity and a reminder of the white linen robe that the high priest used to wear in the Temple of Jerusalem. Very pious Jews are married and buried in a kittel, which is also worn on YOM KIPPUR and at the seder on PASSOVER.

Shanah Tovah Cards

Many Jews send out Shanah Tovah greeting cards that say "Leshanah Tovah Tikatevu," or "May you be written down for a good year." Although the custom of extending good wishes at Rosh Hashanah started among German Jews during medieval times, these wishes weren't expressed in writing until the fifteenth century, when Jews both in and outside Germany started ending their letters and notes with such messages during the month preceding the holiday. The custom of sending New Year's cards evolved from this practice.

Shanah Tovah cards are sent to rabbis, relatives, friends, and teachers, as well as to business associates and community leaders. Some Jews print their own personal cards, while others buy them at a stationery store. Schoolchildren often make their own. In Israel, they can be purchased from stalls set up in the streets. The cards often feature figures from comic strips, portraits of political and military figures, and sometimes planes, tanks, and guns, symbolic of the violence that has plagued the Middle East in recent decades. Rosh Hashanah


Rosh Hashanah is also known as the Day of Blowing the Shofar or Ram's Horn. It recalls the story of Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to prove the strength of his faith in God. At the last minute, he heard God's voice telling him not to harm his son but to sacrifice an animal instead. Miraculously, he saw a ram caught by its horns in a nearby thicket.

The shofar is also associated with other important events in Jewish history. It sounded when Moses called the Israelites together to give them the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The shofar is still used in Israel to announce the arrival of the Sabbath on Friday afternoons and during the swearing-in of a new president.

The shofar makes three distinct sounds: Shevarim, which consists of three broken notes said to resemble sobbing; Teruah, or nine short notes resembling wailing; and Tekiah, a long, unbroken sound. These three tones, which honor Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are repeated several times in different sequences. Blowing this ancient instrument properly on Rosh Hashanah requires a trained expert; the notes are prescribed by tradition, and their order cannot be changed in any way. Its call summons worshippers to search their consciences and to repent before it is too late.

Although the shofar is usually made from a ram's horn, it can be the horn of any kosher (clean) animal, with the exception of cows, which might remind people of the disgraceful incident involving the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). A curved horn is preferred because it symbolizes the natural posture of the humble, or man bowing in submission to God.

Primitive peoples regarded the New Year as a time when demons were likely to be roaming about. To scare them away, it was customary to make noise by beating drums, sounding gongs, blowing trumpets, and cracking whips. The blowing of the shofar is probably related to this ancient custom, but it is regarded today as a symbol of the history and faith of the Jewish people.

Tashlikh Ceremony

Orthodox Jews, whose ancestors came from northern Europe, observe the ceremony of Tashlikh ("you will cast"), a symbolic throwing away of one's sins into a body of water. On the afternoon of the first day of the New Year (or the second day, if the first day is the Sabbath), they go to the nearest body of flowing water and recite in Hebrew the closing words of the Book of Micah: "He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea." As these words are being recited, people empty their pockets of lint and bread crumbs, throwing them into the water so their sins will be carried away. If flowing water is not available, the ceremony can take place by a well, or facing in the direction of a distant body of water.

Some scholars think that the origin of this custom can be found in the ancient Roman practice of throwing offerings to the river spirits at certain critical times of the year.


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Union for Reform Judaism

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America Rosh Hashanah
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Rosh Hashanah

Between September 6 and October 4; Tishri 1 and 2
Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year and the first two of the 10 High Holy Days ( see Teshuvah) that conclude with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Unlike the secular New Year's Day observance, this is a solemn season during which each person is subject to review and judgment for the coming year. It is a time of prayer and penitence, and is sometimes called the Day of Remembrance or the Day of Blowing the Shofar . The story of Abraham is read in the synagogue, and the blowing of the shofar ("ram's horn") serves as a reminder that although Abraham, in obedience to God, was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, God allowed him to sacrifice a ram instead. The plaintive sound of the shofar is also a call to penitence.
Orthodox Ashkenazim (Jews whose ancestors came from northern Europe) observe the ceremony of Tashlikh, a symbolic throwing of one's sins into a body of water, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah; Kurds jump into the water; kabbalists shake their garments to "free" themselves from sin. All debts from the past year are supposed to be settled before Rosh Hashanah, and many Jews ask forgiveness from friends and family for any slights or transgressions of the concluding year.
Jews celebrate the New Year by eating a special rounded loaf of challah bread, symbolic of the continuity of life, as well as apples dipped in honey, symbols of sweetness and health.
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Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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Volume 1 focuses on the daily prayer service, while Volume 2 discusses the Sabbath and Festival prayers such those associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.