The Hebrew words Rosh Ha-Shanah mean "head of the year," and this day, the first of the Hebrew month Tishre, marks the beginning of the Jewish year. It also celebrates the creation of the world, for Jewish tradition tells us that God completed the seven days of Creation on Rosh Ha-Shanah. Rosh Ha-Shanah has several other names and meanings as well. From the Torah, it is Yom Teruah, the Day of Sounding the Shofar, a reminder of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. It is Yom Ha-Zikaron, a "Day of Remembering," a time to review the past year, considering both the good we have done and the times when we did not measure up. It is also Yom Ha-Din, the "Day of Judgment." The Jewish tradition holds that we are evenly balanced: part good, part sinful. Thus one righteous act, one mitzvah, can tip the scales in our favor, and we can be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Rosh Ha-Shanah, like all Jewish holidays, begins in the evening. The Book of Nehemiah tells us how to celebrate the first night: "Eat rich food and drink sweet wine, and share with those who have none" (8:10). Before the meal, the home festival service includes reciting the blessing over the candles, the Shehecheyanu (a blessing for special occasions), the festival kiddush over wine, and the blessing over bread, Ha-Motzi.
Customs and Traditions
Rather than the traditional oval braided bread, the challah for Rosh Ha-Shanah is round, representing our cyclical sense of time. As one year ends and another begins, we come full circle like a wheel. Some sources liken the round challah to a majestic crown, a symbol of God's sovereignty. We eat the challah with apple slices dipped in honey to express our hope for a sweet year.
Generations of Jews have greeted each other with the traditional Rosh Ha-Shanah refrain: "May you be inscribed for a good year!" In the last century, as families spread out over larger distances, people began sending these greetings through the mail on Rosh Ha-Shanah cards. "Shanah Tovah--A Good Year!"
In the Synagogue
The focus of Rosh Ha-Shanah is the synagogue rather than the home. This time of remembrance and judgment affects us not as individuals, but as a community.
The themes of creation, remembrance, and redemption are echoed throughout the Rosh Ha-Shanah liturgy. In our prayers we acknowledge God's sovereignty and we recognize our human failings.
"And in that day a great shofar will sound."
The most striking aspect of the Rosh Ha-Shanah services is the sounding of the shofar. This is the biblical injunction for the celebration of Rosh Ha-Shanah: "In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion. You shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the shofar is sounded" (Numbers 29:1).
The shofar has inspired many interpretations. The Rabbis of talmudic times heard the shofar as a sign of God's mercy. Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, heard it as a call to repentance.
The Bible cites the shofar in a variety of contexts. It was blown to announce the New Moon and to sound an alarm in times of crisis. For the prophet Isaiah it hailed the coming of the messianic age.
It is a thrilling fanfare, calling to mind ancient times and reminding us of our covenant with God at Sinai.
The sounding of the shofar follows a specific pattern that incorporates four distinct sounds. In Hebrew, these are:
|tekiah, one long blast||teruah, nine staccato blasts|
|shevarim, three short blasts||tekiah gedolah, one very long blast|
In the afternoon after Rosh Ha-Shanah services, many people go to a nearby river or other body of flowing water and throw crumbs into the waters, symbolic of ridding themselves of their sins. "You will cast your sins into the depths of the sea" (Micah 7:19). The Tashlikh ceremony, a refreshing outdoor contrast to the morning hours spent in the synagogue, helps us make a fresh start for the New Year.
"Renew us for a year that is good and sweet."
Rosh Ha-Shanah Liturgy
Rosh Ha-Shanah for Children
Although young children are not able to sit through long services, there are many ways to share the message of the holiday with children of all ages. Most synagogues now incorporate children's services into their Rosh Ha-Shanah schedule. Of course, all children can participate in home activities. Making New Year's cards to send to friends and relatives is a particularly nice family project, and those with a flair for kitchen activities can try baking honey cake or making taiglach, a traditional honey candy.
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