Rosh Hashanah

March 17, 2015 · updated February 1, 2024

“In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation.”

Leviticus 23:24
Rosh Hashanah Challah
A Jewish family with a round challah on Rosh Hashanah. goldenratio_618

Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew, "beginning of the year") is one of the most important Jewish holidays, occurring in September or October on the Gregorian calendar. It is the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the ten Days of Awe, which culminate in Yom Kippur. It is the day on which the year number changes in the Jewish calendar, although it occurs on the first and second day of Tishri, the seventh Jewish month.

History and Meaning of Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah was instituted in Leviticus 23:23-25:

And HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying: "Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation. Ye shall do no manner of servile work; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto HaShem."

In the Bible, Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Teruah (Day of the Shofar), referring to the characteristic blasts of the shofar that are heard on this day, or Yom Ha-Zikkaron (Day of Remembrance), signifying that on this day Jews commemorate the creation of the world and are reminded of their responsibilities as God's chosen people.[#1906]

Rosh Hashanah is also known as the Day of Judgment, for it is believed that on this day God judges all of his people and decides on their fate in the next year. Rosh Hashanah (along with the Days of Awe that follow) is a time of reviewing and repairing one's relationship with God, the Supreme Judge.[#1906]

Rosh Hashanah Religious Rituals

Work is not permitted on Rosh Hashanah and most of the day is spent in synagogue. There is a special, longer service for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The services on both days center on the theme of God's sovereignty.[#1907]

A distinctive feature of Rosh Hashanah is the shofar blast, which fulfills the biblical command for a "blast of horns" in Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1. A total of 100 blasts are sounded from the synagogue on each day of Rosh Hashanah, using four different tones. The shofar is not blown if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Sabbath.[#1907]

The great rabbi Maimonides regarded the shofar blast as:

an allusion, as if to say, "Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from your slumber! Search your deeds and turn in repentance!" (Mishneh Torah, "Laws of Repentance" 3:4)[#1909]

Rosh Hashanah Customs and Traditions

The traditional greeting on Rosh Hashanah is L'shanah tovah ("for a good year"). This is a short version of L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem (to women, L'shanah tovah tikatevi v'taihatemi), which means "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year."[#1907]

Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of reflection and repentance but it is also one of celebration and is not a time of fasting. In fact, several special foods are prepared for Rosh Hashanah meals.

The most popular food-related custom is eating apples and bread dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year. After the apple is dipped in honey, the following blessing is said:[#1910]

"Blessed are You, Lord our God, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree. Amen."

Then, after taking a bite of the apple, this short prayer is recited:

"May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, that you renew for us a good and sweet year."

On Rosh Hashanah, Challah bread, normally braided, may be baked into round shapes to symbolize the cyclical nature of the year, baked with raisins for a sweet new year, or shaped into a ladder or bird to express the wish that the family's prayers would rise to heaven.[#1911]

Fish is also traditionally part of the Rosh Hashanah meal, for it is a traditional symbol of fertility and prosperity. It also represents knowledge since its eyes are always open. Traditionally, the head of the fish is placed before the head of the family, who prays,

"May it be your will that we be like the head (leaders) and not like the tail (followers)."[#1912]

A pomegranate is often part of the holiday meal as well. It is said to have 613 seeds, which is the number of mitzvot (commandments). The pomegranate therefore serves to remind God of the obedience of the family in the prior year.[#1913]

Another long-standing tradition is called Tashlikh ("casting off"). Jews walk to a creek or a river and empty their pockets or cast bread crumbs into it, symbolizing the casting off of their sins of the previous year. This is usually done on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah.[#1914] In many communities, the Tashlikh has become a social occasion, as numerous people from different neighborhoods gather around the same body of water for the ritual.[#1915]