Jewish Calendar - Rosh Hashanah Basics

Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) is celebrated on the first two days of Tishrei, the first month in the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah does not commemorate any historical event in Jewish history but rather is acclaimed as the day of the world's creation. Rosh Hashanah has been since rabbinic times a time of introspection, spiritual self-examination and spiritual renewal.

The Jewish year is calculated according to a lunar/solar system. The beginning of a new month is gauged by the appearance of the moon, while the beginning of the year is determined by the earth's position in relation to the sun. While the Jewish calendar year begins with the first of Tishrei, the biblical numbering of the months begins with Nisan.

The first day of Tishrei is specified in the Bible as a festival: "A Sabbath, a memorial of the sounding of the shofar" (Leviticus 23:23-24) and as "a day of the sounding of the shofar" (Numbers 29:1-6). Interestingly, no mention is made of it there as the New Year. The sounding of the shofar is one of the distinctive features of the religious celebration of the festival, and has largely determined the character of the liturgy.

Other names for Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah is known by several other names: Day of the Blowing of the Shofar  (Yom Teru'ah), Day of Remembrance  (Yom ha-Zikkaron) - the day on which God remembers humankind; Day of Judgment  (Yom ha-Din). The liturgy focuses on the Jewish people's yearning for the establishment of God's sovereignty over the entire world and the ushering in of the millennium.

On this day God judges mankind for the forthcoming year, a judgment that is finally sealed ten days later on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Hence the traditional greeting on Rosh Hashanah is "May you be inscribed [in the Book of Life] for a good year" and on Yom Kippur "May you be sealed [in the Book of Life]." Thus Rosh Hashanah initiates, and Yom Kippur closes, a ten-day period of supplication for a new year of blessing and peace, a period known as  Aseret Yemei Teshuva (the Ten Days of Penitence). Both days are also referred to as Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe).

In the synagogue

It is traditional synagogue practice among Ashkenazi Jews (of east European descent) for congregants, rabbi and cantor to dress in white kittels (Yiddish for robes), symbolic of purity and renewal. White also recalls the verse in Isaiah (1:1) "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall become as white as snow."

Similarly, it is customary to dress the Torah scroll and the ark with white curtains and covers, in place of the colored ones used the rest of the year. The shofar is sounded repeatedly (at least 30 times) in the synagogue service (except when Rosh Hashanah falls on the Sabbath), awakening the people to repentance as well as hailing God as King of the universe, much as a trumpet is sounded at the coronation of a king (as tradition acclaims this day as that on which the world was created).

The shofar also recalls the giving of the Torah at Sinai which was accompanied by blasts of the shofar, and alludes to "the great shofar" (Isaiah 27:13) that will herald the messianic age. The scriptural sources for this ritual (Leviticus 23:24; and Numbers 29:1 - see above) do not define the specific instrument to be used. Although the tractate Rosh Hashanah in the Mishnah (code of Jewish life compiled c.200 CE) rules that the horn of any ritually pure animal (except the cow) may be used as a shofar, the ram's horn was preferred at a later period, as it recalls the Binding of Isaac for whom a ram was substituted as a sacrifice to God (Genesis 22:13).


The custom of Tashlikh

A custom observed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the afternoon (or on the second day in the afternoon if the first day is the Sabbath), is to gather at a stream or river to symbolically cast away one's sins. The ceremony is known as  Tashlikh ("cast off" in Hebrew) involves the throwing of crumbs from one's pockets into the running waters and the reciting of biblical verses.

A central verse in the ceremony is from the Book of Micah (7:19): "And you kill cast [vetashlikh] all their sins in the depths of the sea." 


The preceding month of Elul

The Hebrew month of Elul which precedes Rosh Hashanah has likewise became a sort of preparatory time of repentance and spiritual preparation. The shofar is sounded daily at the morning service (except on the Sabbath) and Psalm 27 is read. Special penitential prayers, Selihot, are recited. It is customary to visit the graves of one's departed family members before Rosh Hashanah, during the month of Elul.

These special penitential prayers, Selihot, are recited in the Ashkenazi tradition during the last four to nine days of Elul, while in the Sephardi tradition daily throughout the month. Selihot comes from the Hebrew rootword s-l-h which means "to forgive."

In the home  

Festival candles are lit at sunset in the home and the blessing over the wine, the Kiddush, is recited at the table. The  Shehe'heyanu prayer is then recited, thanking God for the gift of life and for having brought us to this season.

Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha'olam, she'hecheyanu v'kiymanu v'higiyanu laz-mahn ha-zeh. (Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.)

This blessing is also recited when eating a new fruit for the first time in a season. Apples are dipped in honey, expressing the hope that the coming year will be one of goodness and sweetness. It is also customary to recite the Motzi (blessing over bread) over a round hallah, recalling a king's crown - hence God's kingship, or alternately, the ongoing continuity of the life cycle. Dishes are meant to augur well for the new year, such as apples dipped in honey. The Shehe'heyanu blessing, recited at first occasions, is recited over the festival itself. On the second night, however, a new fruit is eaten in order to be able to recite the Shehe'heyanu blessing once again.

Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha'olam, asher kid-shanu be'mitzvotav ve'tzivanu le-hadlik ner shel Yom Tov (when the festival falls on Shabbat, the concluding words are "ner shel Shabbat v'Yom Tov"). (Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your mitzvot and has commanded us to kindle light for the festival.) 

Traditional foods

A round hallah suggest God's crown (kingship being a central theme), as well as the continuing cycle of life. Apples dipped in honey express the wish for a sweet and fruitful year.



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