Tonight, at sundown, begins the Jewish High Holy days, starting with Rosh Hashana:
Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first and second days of
Tishri. In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means,
literally, "head of the year" or "first of the year." Rosh Hashanah is commonly
known as the Jewish New Year. This name is somewhat deceptive, because there is
little similarity between Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the year,
and the American midnight drinking bash and daytime football game.
There is, however, one important similarity between the Jewish New Year and the
American one: Many Americans use the New Year as a time to plan a better life,
making "resolutions." Likewise, the Jewish New Year is a time to begin
introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning the
changes to make in the new year. More on this concept at
Days of Awe.
The name "Rosh Hashanah" is not used in the Bible to discuss this holiday. The
Bible refers to the holiday as Yom Ha-Zikkaron (the day of remembrance) or Yom
Teruah (the day of the sounding of the shofar). The holiday is instituted in
shofar is a ram's horn which is blown somewhat like a trumpet. One of the most
important observances of this holiday is hearing the sounding of the shofar in
the synagogue. A total of 100 notes are
sounded each day. There are four different types of shofar notes: tekiah, a 3
second sustained note; shevarim, three 1-second notes rising in tone, teruah, a
series of short, staccato notes extending over a period of about 3 seconds; and
tekiah gedolah (literally, "big tekiah"), the final blast in a set, which lasts
(I think) 10 seconds minimum. Click the shofar above to hear an approximation
of the sound of Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah. The Bible gives no specific
reason for this practice. One that has been suggested is that the shofar's
sound is a call to repentance. The shofar is not blown if the holiday falls on
No work is permitted on Rosh Hashanah. Much of the
day is spent in synagogue, where the regular
daily liturgy is somewhat expanded. In fact,
there is a special prayerbook called the machzor used for Rosh Hashanah and
Yom Kippur because of the extensive liturgical
changes for these holidays.
Another popular observance during this holiday is eating apples dipped in
honey, a symbol of our wish for a sweet new year. This was the second Jewish
religious practice I was ever exposed to (the first one: lighting
Chanukkah candles), and I highly recommend it.
It's yummy. We also dip bread in honey (instead of the usual practice of
sprinkling salt on it) at this time of year for the same reason.
Another popular practice of the holiday is Tashlikh ("casting off"). We walk to
flowing water, such as a creek or river, on the afternoon of the first day and
empty our pockets into the river, symbolically casting off our sins. Small
pieces of bread are commonly put in the pocket to cast off. This practice is
not discussed in the Bible, but is a long-standing custom. Tashlikh is normally
observed on the afternoon of the first day, before afternoon services. When the
first day occurs on Shabbat, many synagogues
observe Tashlikh on Sunday afternoon, to avoid carrying (the bread) on Shabbat.
Religious services for the holiday focus on the concept of
The common greeting at this time is L'shanah tovah ("for a good year"). This is
a shortening of "L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem" (or to women, "L'shanah
tovah tikatevi v'taihatemi"), which means "May you be inscribed and sealed for
a good year." More on that concept at Days of Awe.
You may notice that the Bible speaks of Rosh Hashanah as occurring on the first
day of the seventh month. The first month of the
Jewish calendar is Nissan, occurring in March
and April. Why, then, does the Jewish "new year" occur in Tishri, the seventh
Judaism has several different "new years," a concept which may seem strange at
first, but think of it this way: the American "new year" starts in January, but
the new "school year" starts in September, and many businesses have "fiscal
years" that start at various times of the year. In Judaism, Nissan 1 is the new
year for the purpose of counting the reign of kings and months on the calendar,
Elul 1 (in August) is the new year for the tithing of animals,
Shevat 15 (in February) is the new year for trees
(determining when first fruits can be eaten, etc.), and Tishri 1 (Rosh
Hashanah) is the new year for years (when we increase the year number.
Sabbatical and Jubilee years begin at this time).
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