What Is Rosh Hashanah?
The Fellowship | August 16, 2022
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and this year, it begins at sundown on Monday, September 25 and is observed for two days. Learn more about the observations associated with celebrating Rosh Hashanah with our educational resources below.
What is Rosh Hashanah?
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is observed on the first day of the month of Tishrei on the Hebrew calendar, which falls in September or October on the Gregorian calendar (the calendar in common use throughout the world).
Unlike the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah (which means, literally, “the head of the year” in English) is not characterized by frivolity and celebration. Instead, it is a holy day marked by intense moral and spiritual introspection. On this day, Jews consider themselves plaintiffs appealing for their lives before the Supreme Judge and Ruler of the universe.
Because of this judgment, the mood pervading Rosh Hashanah is one of solemnity—but it is also one of trust in a God who is a merciful and beneficent Father, desires our repentance, and is eager to grant forgiveness. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel:
“But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. . . . Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?. . . Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit.” — Ezekiel 18:21, 23, 31
Jewish sages teach that fates are “written” as God judges the world on Rosh Hashanah and “sealed” ten days later on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day on the Hebrew calendar. The period in between the two holy days is known as the Ten Days of Repentance, or the Days of Awe, during which reflection and penitence intensify.
A Day of Judgment
Jews know they are judged by their actions during the course of the whole year, but just as one would be that much more careful while sitting in a courtroom in front of the presiding judge, they know that now is their last chance to make good before the King of Kings, the Judge of Judges—God Himself—before His judgment is made.
Of course, this spirit of humility and reconciliation is to follow Jews throughout the year, throughout their lives. But the High Holy Days are when Jews believe that they have the most power to transform themselves and channel their abilities and resources to serve God.
Just as the secular New Year invites introspection on the past 12 months and resolutions for the year to come, so too, the Jewish New Year calls for examination of past mistakes and planning for improvement in the future.
The liturgy of the Rosh Hashanah morning service is among the most beautiful and moving of the entire year. The following brief prayer expresses some of the different motifs underlying the holiday:
“Today the world is born, today in judgment there stand before you all the creatures of the world, as children or as slaves. If we may call ourselves [your] children, show us mercy as a father shows mercy to his children; if we are [but] slaves, our eyes are focused on you that you might have compassion and decide our case in judgment as brightness in light, awesome and holy God.” (Rosh Hashanah Musaf service)
The Day of Blowing the Trumpets!
God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the LORD amid the sounding of the trumpets – Psalm 47:5.
There’s one time a year that God Himself says, “Take the ram’s horn on the High Holy Days!” Watch as Fellowship President and CEO Yael Eckstein talks about the different sounds of the shofar that can be heard during the High Holy Days.
The sounding of the shofar is the primary ritual associated with the High Holy Days. Traditionally, a shofar is a curved ram’s horn which is hollowed out so that it can produce a sound. However, a shofar can be a curved horn of any kosher animal except for one — the cow. This is because the cow represents the biblical sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32).
The shofar, on the other hand, stands for repentance. We begin blowing the shofar on the first of the Hebrew month of Elul, which is one month before the New Year begins. It is blown in synagogue and in homes in order to remind us that the High Holy Days are approaching and that it is time for introspection and change.
The shofar takes center stage on the two days of the Rosh Hashanah observance. As the verse in Leviticus 23:24 tells us, both days are mainly “commemorated with trumpet blasts.” In synagogues across the world, men, women, and children make it their utmost priority to get to the synagogue in time to hear the blasts of the shofar. The room is silent as people stand in anticipation. When the first blasts emerge, it pierces every heart and soul.
The custom today is to blow a total of 100 blasts, consisting of a combination of the tekiah sound, one long blast; the shevarim blast, three shorter sounds; and the teruah blast, nine short blasts.
A Prayer to God
The shofar is also part of the Rosh Hashanah prayer service, and indeed, a prayer in and of itself. In the Psalms we read: “When hard pressed, I cried to the LORD; he brought me into a spacious place.” Literally translated, this verse reads: “I called from a narrow place and He brought me into a spacious place.” In Jewish tradition, this verse is connected to the shofar which is narrow in the place where the blower blows his breath and wide at the end where the breath emerges. The sound is said to go straight to Heaven as a plea for a healthy and good year. Through the shofar, we pray from a place of constraint, and God answers us in abundance.
Appropriately, the sound of the shofar is woven into the prayer service, sounded at different key intervals in sets of 30 or 40 blasts at a time. Moreover, the ba’al tokeah, literally “master of the blasts” who blows the shofar for the congregation, must be a righteous person, ideally older than 30, indicating a certain maturity. Like a prayer leader, the shofar blower leads the congregation in an encounter with God and must be suited to do so. When the blasts are sounded, a reader calls out each type of blast with precision so that the correct sounds are blown at the appropriate time.
Both at the end of the Rosh Hashanah service and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the final shofar blast is a tekiah gedolah, one long uninterrupted shofar blast. This expresses our prayer that we move away from the brokenness of the other sounds and that our lives will be long and smooth, bringing glory to God.
Cast Your Sins Away
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, people perform the Tashlikh ceremony in which they throw bread crumbs or stones into a running body of water such as a river or spring, symbolically casting off their sins into the water and beginning life anew. This custom originated in the 15th century, and in all likelihood was derived from the biblical account of the scapegoat. (See Leviticus 16.)
Today, Jews view Tashlikh as symbolic of the freedom from sin they can enjoy when they repent and trust in God’s miracle of forgiveness. In the words of the prophet recited in the Tashlikh liturgy, “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).
White is the predominant color during the Ten Days of Repentance. The skullcaps, ark curtain, and Torah mantles are all white, signifying purity, holiness, and atonement for sin — “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). White is also the color of the shrouds in which Jews are buried. It reminds them of the gravity of judgment and the frailty of life.
Recipes for the High Holy Days
It is also customary to dip a piece of challah (bread) or apple into honey at mealtime and recite the prayer, “May it be thy will that we be blessed with a good, sweet year.” As with most other religious festivals, Jews partake of a festive meal on the two days of Rosh Hashanah. People are to feel joyful and confident that God, the Father and King, will pass merciful judgment on their lives and forgive their iniquities.