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A shofar, symbol of the Rosh Hashanah holiday
Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew: ראש השנה, literally “head [of] the year”), is the Jewish New Year. It is the first of the High Holy Days or Yamim Nora’im (“Days of Awe”) which usually occur in the early autumn of the Northern Hemisphere. Rosh Hashanah is a two-day celebration, which begins on the first day of Tishrei. The day is believed to be the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of mankind’s role in God’s world. Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn) and eating symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey to evoke a “sweet new year”.
Greetings and stages
The common greeting on Rosh Hashanah is “Shanah Tovah”, which, in Hebrew, means “[have a] good year” or similar greetings in Hebrew. Thus, in Yiddish the greeting is “ah gut yohr” (“a good year”) or “ah gut gebentched yohr” (“a good blessed year”).
Serious greetings and blessings, based on the nature of the day, commonly used among religiously observant Jews are “Ketiva VeChatima Tova” which means “[may you be] written and inscribed/sealed [for a good new year i.e. by God].” After Rosh Hashanah ends, the greeting is abbreviated to “Gmar Chatima Tova” (“[may you be] finally inscribed/sealed [for a] good [year by God]”) until Yom Kippur. After Yom Kippur is over, until Hoshana Rabbah, as Sukkotends, the greeting is “Gmar Tov” (“[a] good conclusion [of God’s judgment]”).
The above describes three important stages as the spiritual order of the Ten Days of Repentance (the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) unfolds: On Rosh Hashanah God “‘opens’ the ‘books’ of judgment” of creation and all mankind starting from each individual person, and in those books it is first “written” what will be decreed, hence the emphasis on the “ketiva” (“writing”). The “judgement” is then “pending” and prayers and repentance are required. Then on Yom Kippur, the judgment is “sealed” or confirmed (i.e. by the Heavenly Court), hence the emphasis is on the word “chatima” (“sealed”). But the Heavenly verdict is still not final because there is still an additional chance and positive expectation that until Sukkot concludes there is hope that God will deliver a final good and favorable judgment, hence the use of “gmar” (“end”) that is “tov” (“good”).
The term “Rosh Hashanah” does not appear in the Torah. Leviticus 23:24 refers to the festival of the first day of the seventh month as “Zikhron Teru’ah” (“[a] memorial [with the] blowing [of horns]”); it is also referred to in the same part of Leviticus as ‘שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן’ (shabbat shabbaton) or penultimate Sabbath or meditative rest day, and a “holy day to God”. These same words are commonly used in the Psalms to refer to the anointed days. Numbers 29:1 calls the festival Yom Teru’ah, (“Day [of] blowing [the horn]”), and symbolizes a number of subjects, such as the Binding of Isaac and the animal sacrifices that were to be performed. (The term Rosh Hashanah appears once in the Bible inEzekiel 40:1 where it means generally the time of the “beginning of the year” or is possibly a reference to Yom Kippur, but the phrase may also refer to the Hebrew month of Nissan in the spring, especially in light of Exodus 12:2where the month of Nissan is stated as being “the first month of the year” and Ezekiel 45:18 where “the first month” unambiguously refers to Nissan, the month of Passover, as made plain by Ezekiel 45:21. )
In the Siddur and Machzor Jewish prayerbooks Rosh Hashanah is also called “Yom Hazikaron” ([a] day [of] the remembrance), not to be confused with the modern Israeli holiday of the same name which falls in spring.
The Hebrew Rosh HaShanah is etymologically related to the Arabic Ras as-Sanah, the name chosen by Muslim lawmakers for the Islamic New Year. Other pre-Islamic mid-eastern cultures, such as Egypt, Persia and Babylon, did not use this unique name.
Rosh Hashanah marks the start of a new year in the Hebrew calendar (one of four “new year” observances that define various legal “years” for different purposes as explained in the Mishnah and Talmud). It is the new year for people, animals, and legal contracts. The Mishnah also sets this day aside as the new year for calculating calendar years, shmita and yovel years. Jews are confident that Rosh Hashanah represents either figuratively or literally God’s creationex nihilo. However, according to Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua, Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of man.
The Mishnah contains the second known reference to Rosh Hashanah as the “day of judgment”. In the Talmud tractate on Rosh Hashanah, it states that three books of account are opened on Rosh Hashanah, wherein the fate of the wicked, the righteous, and those of an intermediate class are recorded. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life, and they are sealed “to live.” The intermediate class are allowed a respite of ten days, until Yom Kippur, to reflect, repent and become righteous; the wicked are “blotted out of the book of the living forever.”
In Jewish liturgy, Rosh Hashanah leads to Yom Kippur, which is described as “the day of judgment” (Yom ha-Din) and “the day of remembrance” (Yom ha-Zikkaron). Some midrashic descriptions depict God as sitting upon a throne, while books containing the deeds of all humanity are opened for review, and each person passes in front of Him for evaluation of his or her deeds. The Talmud provides three central ideas behind the day:
“The Holy One said, ‘on Rosh Hashanah recite before Me [verses of] Sovereignty, Remembrance, and Shofar blasts (malchuyot, zichronot, shofrot): Sovereignty so that you should make Me your King; Remembrance so that your remembrance should rise up before Me. And through what? Through the Shofar.’ (Rosh Hashanah 16a, 34b)” This is reflected in the prayers composed by the classical rabbinic sages for Rosh Hashanah found in all machzorim where the theme of the prayers is the strongest theme is the “coronation” of God as King of the universe in preparation for the acceptance of judgments that will follow on that day, symbolized as “written” into a Divine book of judgments, that then hang in the balance for ten days waiting for all to repent, then they will be “sealed” on Yom Kippur. The assumption is that everyone was sealed for life and therefore the next festival is Sukkot (Tabernacles) that is referred to as “the time of our joy” (z’man simchateinu).
Laws on the form and use of the shofar and laws related to the religious services during the festival of Rosh Hashanah are described in Rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah that formed the basis of the tractate “Rosh HaShanah” in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. This also contains the most important rules concerning the calendar year.
The shofar is blown in long, short and staccato blasts that follow a set sequence:
• Teki’ah (long sound) Numbers 10:3;
• Shevarim (3 broken sounds) Numbers 10:5;
• Teru’ah (9 short sounds) Numbers 10:9;
• Teki’ah Gedolah (very long sound) Exodus 19:16,19;
• Shevarim Teru’ah (3 broken sounds followed by 9 short sounds).
The total number of blasts on Rosh Hashana is 100.
Duration and timing
Rosh Hashanah occurs 163 days after the first day of Passover (Pesach). In terms of the Gregorian calendar, the earliest date on which Rosh Hashanah can fall is September 5, as happened in 1899 and will happen again in 2013. The latest date that Rosh Hashanah can occur relative to the Gregorian dates is October 5, as happened in 1967 and will happen again in 2043. After 2089, the differences between the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian calendar will result in Rosh Hashanah falling no earlier than September 6.
Although the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, so that the first day of each month originally began with the first sighting of a new moon, since the fourth century it has been arranged so that Rosh Hashanah never falls on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday.
The Torah defines Rosh Hashanah as a one-day celebration, and since days in the Hebrew calendar begin at sundown, the beginning of Rosh Hashanah is at sundown at the end of 29 Elul. The rules of the Hebrew calendar are designed such that the first day of Rosh Hashanah will never occur on the first, fourth, or sixth day of the Jewish week (i.e., Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday). Since the time of the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the time of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, normative Jewish law appears to be that Rosh Hashanah is to be celebrated for two days, due to the difficulty of determining the date of the new moon. Nonetheless, there is some evidence that Rosh Hashanah was celebrated on a single day in Israel as late as the thirteenth century CE. Orthodox and Conservative Judaism now generally observe Rosh Hashanah for the first two days of Tishrei, even in Israel where all other Jewish holidays dated from the new moon last only one day.
The two days of Rosh Hashanah are said to constitute “Yoma Arichtah” (Aramaic: “one long day”). In Reform Judaism, some communities observe only the first day of Rosh Hashanah, while others observe two days. Karaite Jews, who do not recognize Rabbinic Jewish oral law and rely on their own understanding of the Torah, observe only one day on the first of Tishrei, since the second day is not mentioned in the Written Torah.
The Yamim Nora’im are preceded by the month of Elul, during which Jews are supposed to begin a self-examination and repentance, a process that culminates in the ten days of the Yamim Nora’im known as beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with the holiday of Yom Kippur.
The shofar is traditionally blown each morning for the entire month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the shofar is intended to awaken the listeners from their “slumbers” and alert them to the coming judgment. The shofar is not blown on Shabbat.
In the period leading up to the Yamim Nora’im (Hebrew, “days of awe”), penitential prayers, called selichot, are recited.
Rosh Hashana is also the day of “Yom Hadin”, known as Judgment day. On Yom Hadin, 3 books are opened, the book of life, for the righteous among the nations, the book of death, for the most evil who receive the seal of death, and the third book for the ones living in doubts with non-evil sins. The final judgment is not done from Yom Hadin before the start of Yom Kippur, it is sometimes possible to receive the seal of life by asking for forgiveness.
Rosh Hashanah eve
The evening before Rosh Hashanah day is known as Erev Rosh Hashanah (“Rosh Hashanah eve”). As with Rosh Hashanah day, it falls on the 1st day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, since days of the Hebrew calendar begin at sundown. Some communities perform Hatarat nedarim (a nullification of vows) after the morning prayer services during the morning on the 29th of the Hebrew month of Elul, which ends at sundown, when Erev Rosh Hashanah commences. The mood becomes festive but serious in anticipation of the new year and the synagogue services. Many Orthodox men immerse in a mikveh in honor of the coming day.
On Rosh Hashanah day, religious poems, called piyyuttim, are added to the regular services. A special prayer book, the mahzor, is used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (plural mahzorim). A number of additions are made to the regular service, most notably an extended repetition of the Amidah prayer for both Shacharit and Mussaf. The Shofar is blown during Mussaf at several intervals. (In many synagogues, even little children come and hear the Shofar being blown.) Biblical verses are recited at each point. According to the Mishnah, 10 verses (each) are said regarding kinship, remembrance, and the shofar itself, each accompanied by the blowing of the shofar. A variety of piyyutim, medieval penitential prayers, are recited regarding themes of repentance. The Alenu prayer is recited during the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah.
Rosh Hashanah meals usually include apples and honey, to symbolize a sweet new year. Other foods with a symbolic meaning may be served, depending on local minhag (“custom”), such as the head of a fish (to symbolize the “head” of the year).
Many communities hold a “Rosh Hashanah seder” during which blessings are recited over a variety of symbolic dishes. The blessings start with the phrase “Yehi ratzon,” meaning “May it be thy will.” In many cases, the name of the food in Hebrew or Aramaic represents a play on words (a pun). The Yehi Ratzon platter may include apples (dipped in honey, baked or cooked as a compote called mansanada); dates; pomegranates; black-eyed peas; pumpkin-filled pastries called rodanchas; leek fritters called keftedes de prasa; beets; and a whole fish with the head intact. It is also common to eat stuffed vegetables called legumbres yaprakes.
Some of the symbolic foods eaten are dates, black-eyed peas, leek, spinach and gourd, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud. Pomegranates are used in many traditions, to symbolize being fruitful like the pomegranate with its many seeds. The use of apples and honey, symbolizing a sweet year, is a late medieval Ashkenazi addition, though it is now almost universally accepted. Typically, round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of the year. Gefilte fish and Lekach are commonly served by Ashkenazic Jews on this holiday. On the second night, new fruits are served to warrant inclusion of the shehecheyanu blessing.
Rosh Hashanah jams prepared by Libyan Jews
The ritual of tashlikh is performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah by Ashkenazic and most Sephardic Jews (but not by Spanish & Portuguese Jews or some Yemenites). Prayers are recited near natural flowing water, and one’s sins are symbolically cast into the water. Many also have the custom to throw bread or pebbles into the water, to symbolize the “casting off” of sins. In some communities, if the first day of Rosh Hashanah occurs on Shabbat, tashlikh is postponed until the second day. The traditional service for tashlikh is recited individually and includes the prayer “Who is like unto you, O God…And You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea”, and Biblical passages including Isaiah 11:9
(“They will not injure nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”) and Psalms 118:5-9, 121 and 130, as well as personal prayers. Though once considered a solemn individual tradition, it has become an increasingly social ceremony practiced in groups. Tashlikh can be perfomed any time until Hoshana Rabba, and many Hasidic communities perform Tashlikh on yud gimel middos (the penultimate day before Yom Kippur)
Hasidic Jews performing tashlikh on Rosh Hashanah, painting by Aleksander Gierymski, 1884
• On the first night of Rosh Hashanah after the evening prayer, it is the Ashkenazi and Hasidic custom to wish Le’shana Tova Tikoseiv Vesichoseim (Le’Alter LeChaim Tovim U’Leshalom)which is Hebrew for “May you (immediately) be inscribed and sealed for a Good Year (and for a Good and Peaceful Life)”.
• Shana Tova (pronounced [ʃaˈna toˈva]) is the traditional greeting on Rosh Hashanah which in Hebrew means “A Good Year.” (Hebrew: שנה טובה)
• Shana Tova Umesukah is Hebrew for “A Good and Sweet Year.” (Hebrew: שנה טובה ומתוקה)
• Kesiva ve-chasima tovah which translates as “May You Be Written and Sealed for a Good Year.” (Hebrew: כתיבה וחתימה טובה)
• The formal Sephardic greeting is Tizku leshanim rabbot (“may you merit many years”), to which the answer is ne’imot ve-tovot (“pleasant and good ones”). Less formally, people wish each other “many years” in the local language.