Jewish Holiday: Rosh Hashanah

Laws & Customs
By: Amy J. Kramer

Your spiritual journey begins in Elul, the Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashanah which is usually the beginning of September.

During Elul it is custom to blow the shofar, the ram's horn, in the synagogue, during weekday services. The shofar, the most visible symbol of Rosh Hashanah, is a reminder of the animal that was sacrificed in place of the patriarch, Isaac.

Shofar: The ram's horn undergoes a special cleaning process where it is treated and hollowed to produce three basic sounds:

  • Teki'yah, a single blast;
  • Teru'ah, a series of three short blasts; and
  • Shevarim, a series of short, staccato blasts.

Long ago, the shofar was used to herald important events like the new moon and the start of holidays. It was also used to call the Isrealites to war. However, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the wail of the shofar, both plaintive and stirring, is designed to awaken the heart of every Jew, no matter how old, to repentance and a closer relationship with G-d.

Greetings: During Elul, Jews everywhere wish each other Shanah Tovah, a good year; or Le-shanah tovah tikatevu, may you be inscribed for a good year. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is customary to add Le-Shanah tovah tikkateivu ve-tehateimu, may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

New Year's Cards: The tradition of giving and receiving New Year greetings, written or oral, is another way Jews express good wishes for the coming year. New Year cards or letters are an excellent means of reconnecting with family and friends far and near. Many families use this time of year to catch up with each other and let friends and relatives know about some of their most significant achievements and upcoming events.

Remembering the Dead: Many families use this time of year to visit the grave sites of loved ones. There is the feeling in Judaism that the thoughts or prayers of the deceased can intercede on behalf of the living. This belief is particularly important between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when every little bit helps.

Slichot: As the month of Elul draws to an end, an important series of prayers is begun the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah called Slichot, which means forgiveness. Usually beginning around midnight, these prayers, which describe the 13 merciful attributes of G-d, are meant to prepare oneself for the upcoming holiday. The prayers, usually recited at the synagogue, are repeated daily, just before sunrise until Rosh Hashanah. It is also customary this month to recite Psalm 27 during prayer services.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, even mine adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell.

This psalm pleads with G-d to help us before our enemies and illustrates our faith in G-d as our savior.

Hatarat Nedarim: Among traditional circles, the practice of hatarat nedarim, the absolution of vows, is observed. One person asks three others to act as their bet din, or religious court. In turn, each of the four asks the other three to act as their bet din. The point of this ritual, which can be found in the siddur, or prayer book, is to come before G-d on Rosh Hashanah without any baggage, free of unfulfilled promises and vows that could be held against you.

Candle Lighting: Finally, it is Erev Rosh Hashanah, the eve of the holiday, and at sunset, with family gathered at home, Rosh Hashanah is welcomed with the lighting of two candles.

Two blessings are receited:

First blessing: Baruch ata adonai, eloheynu melech ha'olam, asher kiddishanu be'mitzvotav ve'tzivanu, le'hadlik ner shel (shabbat) v' yom tov.

Note: If Rosh Hashanah begins erev shabbat, on Friday night, light the holiday candles first and then say the blessing for Shabbat.

Blessed are You, O Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, to light the candle of this hold day.

Second blessing: Baruch ata adonai, eloheynu melech ha'olam, she-he-chiyanu, ve'kiy'manu, ve'higianu la'zman hazeh.

Blessed are You, O Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has kept us in life, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.

Kiddush: A special kiddush, a blessing usually said over wine or grape juice, is recited before Sabbath and holiday meals. This special blessing differs slightly from other holidays and is usually chanted with a special melody. It emphasizes Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of creation, the day of rememberance, and the day of shofar blowing.

Challah: Challah is a traditional Jewish bread. Unlike the Sabbath, when it is customary to make a bracha, or blessing, over two, twisted loaves, on Rosh Hashanah, the blessing for bread, is made over two round challah loaves. One reason is that a round challah symbolizes a crown, a reminder of the kingship of G-d, the holiday's most important theme. Another explanation is that the round shape is a symbol of the circle of life and our hope that our lives will continue without end.

Some bake their challah with a ladder on top as a reminder that G-d decides who will ascend and descend the ladder of life. A lesser known custom is baking challah in the shape of a bird as described in Isaiah: 31:5 As hovering birds, so will the Lord protect Jerusalem.

Apples and Honey: Of the many popular foods eaten during Rosh Hashanah, few are more anticipated than the dipping of apples into honey. On Rosh Hashanah, the honey, which is eaten raw, is spread on challah instead of salt, which is used on Sabbath and other Holiday festivals. Many families set aside a silver or special container in which to place the honey.

During the High Holidays, many cooks make a special effort to make recipes with honey, such as honey cakes or tzimmes, a sweet stew. During kiddush, a special blessing is recited before and after the apples are dipped into honey.

First Blessing: Baruch ata adonai eloheynu melech ha'olam, bo-rey, pri, ha'etz.

Blessed are you, O Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the tree.

Second Blessing: Yehi ratzon mi'lfanecha adonai eloheynu ve'elohey avoteynu, she' tehadesh aleynu shanah tovah u'metukah.

May it be your will, O Lord our G-d, and G-d of our fathers, to renew unto us a happy and sweet year.

Hiddur Mitzvah: It is custom to set the holiday table with one's finest, from the table linen and flowers, to dishes and glass ware. Families often buy new clothes for each other and wear them the eve of Rosh Hashanah. This custom is derived from an important Torah principle, called Hiddur Mitzvah, to enhance the act or ritual, which simply means taking the extra time and effort to make what you are doing more beautiful and special.

Therefore, Kiddush, recited over wine, is made over your most special, treasured goblet, something you keep all year and may only take out on Sabbath and holidays. The two, traditionally round challot, an egg or white bread, may rest on a special board or silver tray and are covered with a special embroidered cloth or with something you or your children have made.

Likewise, the blessings for apples and honey are made using a special honey dish, only used on Rosh Hashanah. In the spirit of hiddur mitzvah, you may want to use non-drip creamed honey or flavored honey, like cinnamon, for a special touch. Or, try various seasonal apples, like Winesap, Gala, Red Delicious, Jonathan, Stayman, Cortland and McIntosh, for delicious honey dipping.

New Fruits: In Sephardic households, Jews of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent, often begin their holiday meal with a whole fish, including the head, as a wish for prosperity, fertility and good luck in the coming year. Other Sephardic Jews serve covered baskets of fruit so nobody knows what is inside, just as nobody knows what the new year will bring.

This custom spread to other Jews around the world and we now wait until Rosh Hashanah to make blessings on new, or unique fruits. Figs, kumquats, persimmon, kiwi, Asian pear, pomegranates, and papaya, are examples of fruits not usually used during the year. The blessings on new fruits are traditionally recited the second night of Rosh Hashanah.

Special Foods: Another unique, cooked dish eaten on Rosh Hashanah is tzimmes, which literally means a mixture, and is made from carrots, cinnamon, yams, prunes and honey. The carrots are traditionally cut in the shape of coins, another symbol of wealth for the new year. It is customary, however, to avoid eating nuts since the Hebrew letters of the word egoz, or nut, have the same numerical value as the Hebrew word for sin.

Tashlich: The afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah it is customary to perform a ritual known as tashlich. The ritual involves walking to a river or any body of water and reciting specific prayers.

The prayer is accompanied by either the emptying of one's pockets or the tossing of bread crumbs, symbolizing the casting-off of our sins, which are carried away by the water. If the first day occurs on the Sabbath, tashlich is postponed until the second afternoon of Rosh Hashanah..

Tashlich is based on the following biblical passage:

You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea, and may You cast all the sins of Your people, the house of Israel, into a place where they shall be no more remembered or visited or ever come to mind. Micah 7:18- 20

The Synagogue: Next to home, the synagogue is the most important place on Rosh Hashanah. Over the next two days, the entire community will spend the majority of time praying at the synagogue or temple.

Dress & Decorum: Services tend to start a little earlier in the morning and tend to run later into the early part of the afternoon. Traditionally, married men wear a kittel, a white, ankle-length robe over their clothes as a symbol of purity. Married women, in traditional synagogues, wear a head covering, like a hat. Everyone davens, or prays, from a special siddur called a machtzor, a special prayer book containing all relevant Torah readings and tfilot, prayers, for both days of Rosh Hashanah.

There should be little talking on either side of the mehitzah, a physical barrier, like a curtain, Orthodox synagogues use to separate men and women over the ages of twelve and thirteen. The entire congregation should be focused on prayer, and should be listening intently to the chazan or shaliach tzibur, which can be the rabbi or any member of the congregation considered devout enough to lead special portions of the service.

Central Prayers: Three central prayers dominate the davening on Rosh Hashanah:

  • Avinu Malkaynu,
  • Unetaneh Tokef, and the
  • Musaf Amidah.

Repetition of Avinu Malkaynu, our Father, our King, occurs throughout the prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is an emotional and highly melodic song dating between the second and sixth centuries. The prayer lists 44 admissions of guilt for which we ask G-d's forgiveness. All but the final four are chanted silently.

Unetaneh Tokef, usually sung solo by the cantor or shaliach tzibur, is a dramatic hymn written by a rabbi in the Middle Ages who was tortured for refusing to convert of Christianity. In it, he vividly describes the moment in which each individual is judged. At this time in the service, the entire congregation is silent, as the prayer is chanted slowly.

On Rosh Hashanah our destiny is written; at the end of Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water?

The Musaf Amidah, also known as the service for the sounding of the shofar, is divided into three blessings:

  • Malchiot, rulership, proclaims G-d's eternal power over all the earth;
  • Zichronot, memory, stresses the history of the Jewish people; and
  • Shofarot, blowing of the shofar, links the shofar to imporatant past events like the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and to the future, when at the time of the Messiah, the shofar will be heard again.

Each blessing is centered around ten verses, three from the Chumash, the five Books of Moses; three from Ketuvim, writings; and three from Nevi'im, prophets; and one again from the Chumash. They all reflect three of the most significant themes of Judaism.

  1. The acceptance of G-d as King of the Unviverse.
  2. The fact that G-d punishes the wicked and rewards the good.
  3. The belief that G-d revealed Himself at Mt. Sinai and will do again in the Messianic times.

Torah Readings: The Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah, include the birth of Isaac on the first day, and the sacrifice of Isaac, on the second. Haftarot, readings following the Torah portion, include the birth of the prophet Samuel from Shoftim, the Book of Judges; and parts of the Book of Jeremiah on the second.

The themes of birth after barrenness, deliverance after exile, and rescue from sacrifice are the main themes of these readings.

"Days In between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur"

Days of Awe: Also known as the Ten Days of Repentance, these are the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In Hebrew, they are called Aseret Yemay Tshuvah, and offer another chance for spiritual renewal.

Fast of Gedaliah: On the third day of Tishri, Jews observe a minor fast known as the Tzom Gedaliah, the fast of Gedaliah. This commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah, the last governor of Judea following the destruction of the first temple, in 586 B.C. His death marked the end of Jewish rule and led to the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people. It is one of four fast days relating to the destruction of the temple.

Shabbat Shuvah: The Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return. Besides its special haftorah, this Sabbath is usually marked in synagogues with a lengthy Davar Torah, or sermon, about repentance. This custom started in Eastern Europe when rabbis spoke twice a year - once on Shabbat Shuvah, and once on Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath, which takes place one week before Passover.