Rosh Hashanah: Happy New Year!

"Gierymski Feast of trumpets I" by Aleksander Gierymski - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Feast of Trumpets” by Aleksander Gierymski, 1884 – Hasidic Jews performing tashlikh on Rosh Hashanah (CC0 image via Wikimedia Commons)

Rosh Hashanah is fast approaching–it’s almost time for apples and honey! This sweet treat is one of many customs that symbolize the wish for a sweet new year.

Rosh Hashanah is the first of the autumnal Jewish holidays known as the High Holy Days.  It is a two-day holiday due to the nature of the Jewish calendar, which follows the lunar cycle and is dependent on observation of the new moon. Difficulty determining when the moon actually appeared meant that the Jews of ancient Israel observed both possible days after the end of the previous month. Religious Jews continue this practice today.

The Hebrew term “Rosh Hashanah” translates as “the head of the year” or “the first of the year.” Historically, it is believed that this time period is the anniversary of the creation of the world and of the first man and woman. Rosh Hashanah is a time of both joy and solemnity, as Jews all over the world celebrate the beginning of a new year and stand in judgment for the previous one. No work is permitted during the holiday; the majority of the day is spent in synagogue reciting special prayers.

A shofar (CC BY-SA 2.5 image by Olve Utne)
A shofar (CC BY-SA 2.5 image by Olve Utne)

The most essential and iconic tradition of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar. A shofar is a trumpet made from an animal horn, traditionally a ram’s. Its call sounds like a plaintive cry, meant to awaken the Jewish people to repentance and remind them that G-d is their king.

(CC BY-SA 3.0 image by Gilabrand)
Symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah (CC BY-SA 3.0 image by Gilabrand)

Symbolic foods are consumed throughout the holiday, representing good things we hope for in the coming year. I have already mentioned apples and honey, sometimes eaten with round loaves of challah bread, symbolizing fullness and completion are used.  A pomegranate is said to contain 613 seeds, the same as the full number of commandments, and according to tradition, it is eaten to symbolize the hope that our “merits increase as the seeds of the pomegranate.” Other symbolic foods include the head of a fish or lamb, dates, and gourds.

One last tradition is saying the prayer of Tashlich on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. This involves turning out our pockets at a body of water, preferably one with fish in it. This is symbolic of casting off our sins and mistakes for the fish to carry away.

To find out more, the library has many resources, including A companion to the Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur machzor, by A.L. Rubinstein and The High Holy Days: a commentary on the prayerbook of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, by Herman Kieval).

As the traditional greeting goes, “L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem.” May we be inscribed and sealed for a good year!

Rosh Hashanah begins this year at sundown, September 30th, and ends sundown, October 1st

Contributed by: Toby Krausz, Judaica Librarian, Midtown

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