Rosh Hashanah, also known as the Jewish New Year, is held on the first and second days of the Jewish month of Tishrei. Rosh Hashanah literally means "head of the year" in Hebrew ( "rosh" means head and "shanah" means year). It’s considered a day of remembrance, where those who observe it are encouraged to remember what they've done (whether it be positive or negative) of the past year, and focus on how they can improve upon themselves in the year ahead.
“It’s a celebratory day in many respects," Rabbi Rachel Marder tells Woman's Day. "We celebrate the New Year with excitement and optimism, but it also has a solemn tone to it. We’re really trying to examine our deeds, both good and bad from the past year, and consider how we can strive to be our best selves going forward."
If you're new to Judaism, or simply want to learn more about the Jewish New Year, here's everything you need to know about Rosh Hashanah:
How is Rosh Hashanah celebrated?
There are many ways to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, including:
Blowing the shofar: The shofar is a musical instrument that is often made from a ram’s horn. It is blown roughly 100 times to herald in the New Year. “It’s a Mitzvah (a good deed) to hear the shofar blown,” Marder explains. “It acts like a spiritual alarm clock, waking us up to our past deeds and inviting us to examine ourselves and reset for the year ahead.” Another name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Truah, meaning ‘day of blasting.’
Gathering in synagogue: “Jewish people gather in synagogue as a community to enter the New Year together,” Marder says. “It’s about standing before God as equals.”
Eating certain foods: There are specific foods eaten on Rosh Hashanah that are called Simanim. Two of the most common are apples with honey and a round Challah (a braided bread typically eaten on the Jewish Sabbath and on other major holidays.) Apples with honey symbolizes a sweet new year, while a round-shaped challah symbolizes the cycle of the seasons.
Tashlich: The word Tashlich means "to cast away," and is a customary Jewish atonement ritual. “It’s a tradition of going to a natural body of water (i.e. an ocean or stream) on Rosh Hashanah and tossing bread crumbs with a blessing into the water,” Marder says. “People do this to symbolize a casting away of sins or deeds that we’re not proud of.”
What are some Rosh Hashanah facts?
There are a number of facts everyone should know about Rosh Hashanah. For instance, this year the holiday starts at sundown on the evening of September 18. The holiday lasts two days, and will end at sundown on September 20. This is because Jewish law says that day actually begins at nigh time. The reason comes from the story of Creation, where it is said that God created night first, and then went on to create the day.
A special prayer book is used on Rosh Hashanah, called a Machzor, which means "to return." It represents the cycle of the year and returning to one’s true self.
A common tradition during Rosh Hashanah is giving Tzedakah, or charity/financial assistance, to those in need.
The traditional holiday greeting is “L’shana Tova”, which means "to a good year."
What are ways you can celebrate Rosh Hashanah this year?
While this year's Rosh Hashanah celebration will present some unique challenges, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there are still ways you can celebrate. “We’re trying to focus less time on what we can’t do, and trying to reframe the holiday in terms of what we can do,” Marder says. “One of the most important Jewish values is Pikuach Nefesh which means saving a life. Protecting one's health supersedes any other mitzvah.”
Marder goes on to explain that some communities will celebrate with virtual live stream services, while others will do a mix of virtual events and social-distanced gatherings. She says that if you can’t join a virtual service or community event, one meaningful way to celebrate the holiday is to engage in self-reflection.
“Try to do journaling or reflection work," she explains. :Ask yourself, ‘What are my strengths and what are my challenges?’ Celebrate who you are and how far you’ve come, but also focus on the work you can do in the coming year to improve yourself.”
How can you learn more about Rosh Hashanah?
Marder recommends a couple books for those looking to increase their Rosh Hashanah knowledge. For starters, she says, you should pick up "This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation" by Alan Lew, and "Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days" by Gail Twersky Reimer.
Rosh Hashanah is a time for self-reflection and celebration. While this year may present its own challenges to coming together as a community, you can still ring in the Jewish New Year by reflecting who you were during these past 365 days, and who you'd like to become in the year ahead.
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