It’s the holiday that marks the Jewish new year. To celebrate, we eat apples and honey.
Rosh Hashanah 2020 begins at sundown Friday, September 18, ending at sundown on Sunday, September 20.
Since the holiday is commonly called the “Jewish New Year,” one would think Rosh Hashanah would mark the first day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar. It doesn’t: Tishrei, on the first day of which we celebrate this major holiday, is the calendar’s seventh month. Why, then, is it given the distinction of marking the new year?
This question is especially vexing considering that—like the old adage about two Jews and twice as many opinions—the Hebrew calendar marks several different occasions as New Year’s Day: For example, the first day of Nissan, the first month, is the yardstick according to which we measure the years of the reign of kings, while if we were concerned with the tithing of animals, the date to keep in mind would have been the first of Elul, the sixth month.
Seven, however, had always had special meaning in Judaism; although Rosh Hashanah itself isn’t mentioned by name in the Bible, God, speaking to Moses in Leviticus 23:24, imagines the holiday as a sort of Sabbath for the soul: “On the first day of the seventh month,” says the Almighty, “you are to have a day of rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts.”
These blasts come courtesy of the shofar, or ram’s horn, which is blown to awaken the congregation from its spiritual slumber and drive worshippers to repent. In the Mishna, the holiday is also referred to as “the day of judgment.” The world, the rabbis tell us, is assessed four times a year: on Passover, God passes judgment on the earth’s fertility for the coming year; on Shavuot, he judges the fruit of the trees, and on Sukkot, the rain. But on Rosh Hashanah, it’s man’s turn to stand trial.
Judaism being a legalistic religion, the procedure is described in detail. The Talmud, in the tractate on Rosh Hashanah, tells us that on that day God opens three celestial accounting books: in one He writes the names of the righteous, who will go on to live another year; and in the second, the names of the wicked, who shall perish from this earth before the year is over. The third, and most heavily populated, contains the names of those indeterminate souls whose fate hangs in the balance. They are then put on the heavenly waiting list, and have until Yom Kippur—the 10-day period known as Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) or Asseret Yamei Teshuva (Ten Days of Repentance)—to repent for their past sins. And as we can never know for sure just which book has our name in it, goes the logic, best to join the atoners. The books, tradition has it, are sealed on Yom Kippur, which is why a common greeting in the period between the two holidays is le’shana tova tikatevu ve’tikhatemu—may your name be written and sealed for a good year.
Casting away sin, however, is serious business, so the custom of tashlikh was created, most likely in 13th-century Germany. The practice derives from the Book of Micah, which commands us in the penultimate verse of its last chapter, to cast all our sins “into the depths of the sea.” On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews congregate by bodies of flowing water—usually rivers, seas, or, when necessary, faucets—toss in bits of bread and recite portions of Micah, and thereafter emerge cleansed and ready to repent.
You know all about the apples dipped in honey, which we eat to symbolize our wishes for a sweet new year. But did you know about the Rosh Hashanah seder? Though not celebrated as universally as the meal on Passover, it is nonetheless customary in many Jewish communities to hold a culinary ceremony on Rosh Hashanah’s first evening, chomping on myriad foods—from the head of a fish to leeks and gourds and black-eyed beans to pomegranates—and expounding on the symbolism of each one. The fish’s head, for example, represents our desire to be in the lead, and the pomegranate our wish to see our rights and good deeds become as plentiful as that fruit’s seeds. Some foods, however, are eaten because their names make for convenient puns in Hebrew or Aramaic: the carrot, for example, or gezer in Hebrew, is eaten to ward off gzerot, evil decrees, against the Jews. Then too, there is the challah. On Rosh Hashanah, the bread that appears year-round in its braided form is made on this holiday into a round, swirled shape, often enhanced with raisins. There are different reasons to explain the variation, among them that the circular shape has, like the world, no beginning and no end, or that the swirl looks like a crown, alluding to the head—or Rosh—of the year.
This being a holiday, all the standard issurim, or forbidden things, prohibited on Shabbat apply.
During services, we recite two special prayers. The first is the U’Netaneh Tokef, a beautiful medieval poem about the solemnity of the day. “On Rosh Hashanah,” it reads, “will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die…. But repentance, prayer, and charity can remove the evil of the decree.”
The other prayer, the El Maleh Rachamim, is read frequently in the Days of Awe, and is a prayer for the souls of the departed, believed to be watching over those of the living in these crucial times.
And then there’s the shofar. Although it is traditionally blasted (that’s the technical term for what one does with a shofar, and the one who does it is called the blaster) every day during the month of Elul, the month preceding Tishrei, it is on Rosh Hashanah that awakening is expected to begin in earnest. The horn makes three sounds: tekiah, one long blast; teruah, a series of nine staccato blasts; and shevarim, a series of three broken sounds. Saadia Gaon, the great 10th-century rabbi, wrote extensively about the spiritual importance of the shofar, seeing in the instrument everything from an allusion to the ram Abraham sacrificed instead of Isaac to a reference to Sinai, where a shofar was blasted as God delivered his divine covenant to the Israelites. Whatever the meaning, it is considered a great mitzvah to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
Alas, no. With the exception of the prayers mentioned above, this is a day of reflection on personal deeds, past behaviors, and future resolutions.
• Listen to this podcast about learning to blow the shofar.
• Bake the ultimate challah, with expert guidance from Joan Nathan—it’s easier than you think!
• Make a new year pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine, to visit the grave of Reb Nachman of Breslov.
• Wish your friends and family a shana tova, emoji-style.
• Mix up a pomegranate cocktail and make the Days of Awe slightly less terrible.