What Is Rosh Hashanah?
The anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, a day of judgment and coronation, the sounding of the shofar . . .
What: It is the birthday of the universe, the day Gd created Adam and Eve, and it’s celebrated as the head of the Jewish year.
How: Candle lighting in the evenings, festive meals with sweet delicacies during the night and day, prayer services that include the sounding of the ram’s horn (shofar) on both mornings, and desisting from creative work.
Why Rosh Hashanah Is Important
Rosh Hashanah means “Head of the Year.” Just like the head controls the body, our actions on Rosh Hashanah have a tremendous impact on the rest of the year.
As we read in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, each year on this day “all inhabitants of the world pass before Gd like a flock of sheep,” and it is decreed in the heavenly court “who shall live, and who shall die ... who shall be impoverished and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.”
It is a day of prayer, a time to ask the Almighty to grant us a year of peace, prosperity and blessing. But it is also a joyous day when we proclaim Gd King of the Universe. The Kabbalists teach that the continued existence of the universe depends on Gd’s desire for a world, a desire that is renewed when we accept His kingship a new each year on Rosh Hashanah.
What’s It Called?
The most common name for this holiday is Rosh Hashanah, the name used in the eponymous tractate of Talmud devoted to the holiday.
The Torah refers to this day as Yom Teruah (Day of Shofar Blowing).1
In our prayers, we often call it Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance) and Yom Hadin (Day of Judgement) since this is the day when Gd recalls all of His creations and determines their fate for the year ahead.
First Priority: Hear the Shofar
The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, on both mornings of the holiday (except if the first day is Shabbat, in which case we blow the shofar only on the second day).
The first 30 blasts of the shofar are blown following the Torah reading during morning services, and as many as 70 are then blown during (and immediately after) the Musafservice. Many communities listen to 100 blasts over the course of the Rosh Hashanah morning services. For someone who cannot come to synagogue, the shofar may be blown the rest of the day. If you cannot make it out, please contact your closest Chabad center to see about arranging a “house call.”
The shofar blowing contains a series of three types of blasts: tekiah, a long sob-like blast; shevarim, a series of three short wails; and teruah, at least nine piercing staccato bursts.
(Read more about the shofar blasts, here.)
The blowing of the shofar represents the trumpet blast that is sounded at a king’s coronation. Its plaintive cry also serves as a call to repentance. The shofar itself recalls the Binding of Isaac, an event that occurred on Rosh Hashanah in which a ram took Isaac’s place as an offering to Gd. (Read more on the reasons for shofar here.)
Other Rosh Hashanah Observances
Greetings: When you meet a fellow Jew on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, wish him, “Leshana tovah tikatev v’tichatem” or, for a female,“Leshana tovah tikatevee v’tichatemee” (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”). Afterward, wish them a “G’mar chatimah tovah” (“A good inscription and sealing [in the Book of Life]”). (More on the Rosh Hashanah greetings here.)
Candles: As with every major Jewish holiday, women and girls light candles on each evening of Rosh Hashanah and recite the appropriate blessings. On the second night, make sure to use an existing flame and think about a new fruit that you will be eating (or garment that you are wearing) while you say the Shehechiyanu blessing. Click here for candle lighting times in your area and here for the blessings.
Tashlich: On the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah (provided that it is not Shabbat), it is customary to go to a body of water (ocean, river, pond, etc.) and perform the Tashlich ceremony, in which we ceremonially cast our sins into the water. With this tradition we are symbolically evoking the verse, “And You shall cast their sins into the depths of the sea.” The short prayer for this service can be found in your machzor.
Rosh Hashanah Prayers
Much of the day is spent in synagogue. The evening and afternoon prayers are similar to the prayers said on a regular holiday. However, the morning services are significantly longer.
The holiday prayerbook—called a machzor—contains all the prayers and Torah readings for the entire day. The most significant addition is the shofar blowing ceremony. However, there are also other important elements of the prayer service that are unique to Rosh Hashanah.
The Torah is read on both mornings of Rosh Hashanah.
On the first day, we read about Isaac’s birth and the subsequent banishment of Hagarand Ishmael.2 Appropriately, the reading is followed by a haftarah reading about the birth of Samuel the Prophet.3 Both readings contain the theme of prayers for children being answered, and both of these births took place on Rosh Hashanah.
On the second morning, we read about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac.4 As mentioned above, the shofar blowing recalls the ram, which figures prominently in this story as a powerful display of Abraham’s devotion to Gd that has characterized His children ever since. The haftarah5 tells of Gd’s eternal love for His people.
(More on the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah, here.)
The cantor’s repetition of the Amidah (Silent Prayer) is peppered with piyyutim¸ poetic prayers that express our prayerful wishes for the year and other themes of the day. For certain selections, those deemed especially powerful, the ark is opened. Many of these additions are meant to be said responsively, as a joint effort between the prayer leader and the congregation.
Even without the added piyyutim, the Rosh Hashanah Musaf prayer is significantly longer than it is the rest of the year. This is because its single middle blessing is divided into three additional blessings, each focusing on another one of the holiday’s main themes: Gd’s kingship, our wish that He “remember” us for the good, and theshofar. Each blessing contains a collage of Biblical verses that express its theme, and is then followed by a round of shofar blowing.
Rosh Hashanah Feasts
We eat festive meals every night and day of the holiday. Like all other holiday meals, we begin by reciting kiddush over wine and then say the blessing over bread. But there are some important differences:
a. The bread (traditionally baked into round challah loaves, and often sprinkled with raisins) is dipped into honey instead of salt, expressing our wish for a sweet year. We do this on Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat before Yom Kippur), in the pre-Yom Kippur meal and during Sukkot.
b. Furthering the sweet theme, it is traditional to begin the meal on the first night with slices of apple dipped in honey. Before eating the apple, we make the ha’eitz blessing and then say, “May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year.”
c. Many people eat parts of the head of a fish or a ram, expressing the wish that “we be a head and not a tail.”
d. In many communities, there are additional traditional foods eaten, each symbolizing a wish for the coming year. Many eat pomegranates, giving voice to a wish that “our merits be many like the [seeds of the] pomegranate.” Another common food is tzimmes, a sweet carrot-based dish eaten because of its Yiddish name, merren, which means both “carrot” and “increase,” symbolizing a wish for a year of abundance.
e. It is traditional to avoid nuts (here’s why) as well as vinegar-based, sharp foods, most notably the horseradish traditionally eaten with gefilte fish, since we don’t want a bitter year.
f. On the second night of the holiday, we do not eat the apples, fish heads, pomegranates, etc. However, before we break bread (and dip it in honey), we eat a “new fruit,” something we have not tasted since the last time it was in season. (Read this blog post to learn the reason for the new fruit and the other traditional foods.)
(Read about the elaborate array of symbolic foods eaten in Sephardic communitie shere.)
Rosh Hashanah is the start of the Yamim Nora’im (High Holidays). The holy day of Yom Kippur when we gather in synagogue for 25 hours of fasting, prayer and inspiration, is just a week later. The days in between (known as the 10 Days of Repentance, or the Ten Days of Return) are an especially propitious time for teshuvah, returning to Gd. Yom Kippur is followed by the joyous holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
The season of the High Holidays is a time for an epic journey for the soul, and Rosh Hashanah is where it all begins.