Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year; the Hebrew means “Head of the Year.” This year is 5772 in the Jewish reckoning. Unlike the secular New Year, Rosh HaShanah is a very solemn day as it is the day Jews ask God for forgiveness for sins of the past year. Perhaps the only similarity to the secular New Year is that many Jews make resolutions to lead a better life in the coming year. Most of the day is spent in the synagogue or temple.
Together with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) which occurs 10 days later, Rosh HaShanah forms part of what are called the High Holy Days. The days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are known as the Yamim Noraim (or “Days of Awe”) which act as days of repentance.
Generally speaking, the High Holy Days are the most important days of observance in Judaism. Among observant Jews, traditionally, the weekly observance of the Sabbath on Saturdays is the most important Jewish holiday. In practice, though, for many Jews who do might not regularly attend weekly Sabbath services, the High Holy Days often take place of prominence. (Please note that I am in no way attempting to take a stance on what is or is not proper observance for any religion in these updates, but rather simply trying to make the general community aware of the various religious practices as they affect activities for students faculty and staff).
While Rosh HaShanah, like all Jewish holidays, appears to wander in the secular calendar, this is only because the secular calendar is not consistent with the Jewish calendar. In the Jewish calendar, though, the holiday actually occurs on the same day of the Jewish calendar. Interestingly, Rosh HaShanah does not occur at the beginning of the Jewish calendar; rather, it occurs on the first two days of Tishrei, the seventh month (not the first). This seeming inconsistency rests in the Jewish concept of four different yearly cycles described in the Jewish Talmud. Rosh HaShanah represents the new year for relationships among people (including legal contracts) as well as for animals. The day marks the anniversary of the sixth day in the Creation story in which God created Adam and Eve, the first people. There is considerable variance among Jews as to whether this anniversary of the creation of humankind is viewed as the literal date or simply a symbolic anniversary.
In the Jewish Torah (first five books of the Bible), the name “Rosh HaShanah” never appears for the holiday. Instead, the Torah refers to the holiday as either the Zicaron Terua or “remembrance of the blowing of the horn” (as in Leviticus 23:24) or as the Yom Terua or “day of the blowing of the horn” (Numbers 29.1).
The horn to which this refers is the shofar, Traditionally among most Jews, the shofar is made from a ram’s horn although some other animal horns such as those of antelopes are allowable, and among Yemeni Jews, the shofar is customarily made from the horn of the kudu antelope. The blowing of the shofar is a central part of the religious observance of the holiday.
Even in the Jewish liturgy of prayers used for the day, Rosh HaShanah is generally referred to either as the Yom HaZikaron (the “Day of Remembrance”) or the Yom HaDin (“Day of Judgment”).
On the first afternoon of Rosh HaShanah, Jews traditionally participate in the Taschlikh ceremony. In this ceremony, Jews carry bread crumbs to a stream, river or other naturally flowing source of water. There they say prayers asking to “cast their sins into the waters” with the bread crumbs symbolically representing the sins.
For many Jews (especially among Orthodox and Conservative Jews), on the second day of Rosh HaShanah people eat a fruit that is new to the season. This allows Jews to say a prayer of thanksgiving (called the shehechiyanu) for being allowed to reach a new season. A common choice for this fruit is a pomegranate since (in folk tradition) that fruit has 613 seeds, one for each of the commandments in the Torah.
Finally, in some Jewish traditions, it is customary to eat fish on Rosh HaShanah. In this custom, the fish plays two symbolic roles. First, since the fish’s eyes are always open, it symbolizes total awareness. Second, because fish are plentiful, the meal represents the wish for a fruitful and plenteous year to come.
The simplest traditional greeting for Rosh HaShanah is L’Shanah Tovah (May you have a good year). The response back is the same. Many other greetings are used among Jews during the holiday and the Days of Awe between it and Yom Kippur. One common such greeting is L’Shanah tovah tikateiv veteichateim. This means "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year." This refers to the belief that one asks to be inscribed in the Book of Life on Rosh HaShanah and that this be sealed in the Book of Life on Yom Kippur. Using this greeting may be said in English, and its use would show a significant understanding of the holiday.
As always in these write-ups, I welcome your feedback. Please feel free to send me corrections or things you would like me to include next time (and feel equally free to let me know if you find these worthwhile).