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Jewish Recipes --> Judaism --> What is Rosh HaShanah

Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew: ראש השנה transliterated ro’sh hash-shānāh, "head of the year") is the Jewish New Year. In fact, Judaism has four "new years" which mark various legal "years", much like in the United States January 1 marks the "new year" but the "fiscal new year" starts on a different date. Rosh Hashanah is the new year for people, animals and legal contracts. The Mishnah also sets this day aside as the new year for calculating calendar years and sabbatical (shemitta) and jubilee (yovel) years.

Rabbinic literature and the liturgy itself describes Rosh Hashanah as "The Day of Judgment" (Yom ha-Din), "The Day of Rememberance" (Yom ha-Zikkaron) and "The Day of the Blowing of the Shofar" (Yom Terua). Some descriptions depict God as sitting upon a throne, while books containing the deeds of all humanity are opened for review.

This holiday is the first of the Yamim Noraim (Hebrew, "Days of Awe"), the most solemn days of the Jewish year; the Yamim Noraim are preceded by the month of Elul, during which Jews are supposed to begin a self-examination and repentance, a process that culminates in the ten days of the Yamim Noraim, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with the holiday of Yom Kippur.


Rosh Hashanah extends over the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, even in Israel where most holidays last only one day. (Since days in the Hebrew calendar begin at sunset, the beginning of Rosh Hashanah is when sunset occurs at the end of the 29th of Elul.)

The second day is a later addition and does not follow from the literal reading of the Biblical commandment, which states that the holiday should be celebrated on the first day. The two days of Rosh Hashanah are considered "Yoma Arichtah" (Aramaic: "one long day". There is some evidence that Rosh Hashanah was celebrated for only one day in Jerusalem as late as the thirteenth century. In Reconstructionist Judaism and Reform Judaism, some communities do indeed observe only the first day of Rosh Hashanah, while others observe two days. Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism observe both the first and second days. The Karaites Jews who do not accept the "oral law" but rely only on Biblical scripture, observe only one day on the first day of Tishrei, since the second day is not mentioned literally in the Torah.

Rosh Hashanah occurs 162 days after the first day of Pesach (Passover). In the Gregorian calendar at present, Rosh Hashanah cannot occur before September 5, as happened in 1899 and will happen again in 2014. After the year 2089, the differences between the Hebrew Calendar and the Gregorian Calendar will force Rosh Hashanah to be not earlier than September 6. Rosh Hashanah cannot occur later than October 5, as happened in 1967 and will happen again in 2043. The Hebrew calendar is so constituted that the first day of Rosh Hashanah can never occur on Wednesday, Friday, or Sunday.

The following table lists the two days of Jewish Rosh Hashanah for some years. Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset on the evening before the first day listed in the table.

Jewish year Starts (before sunset) Ends (after sunset)

5766 2005-10-03 2005-10-05
5767 2006-09-22 2006-09-24
5768 2007-09-12 2007-09-14
5769 2008-09-29 2008-10-01

Traditions and customs

This holiday is characterized by the blowing of the shofar (as per Leviticus 23:24), a trumpet made from a ram's horn. In fact, the shofar is blown in traditional communities every morning for the entire month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the shofar is intended to awaken the listener from his or her "slumber" and alert them to the coming judgment (Maimonides, Yad, Laws of Repentance 3:4).

In the period leading up to the Yamim Noraim ("Hebrew, "Days of Awe") many penitential prayers (called selihot) are recited, and on Rosh Hashanah itself religious poems (called piyyuttim) are added to the regular services. Special prayer books for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, called the mahzor (mahzorim pl), have developed over the years. Many poems refer to Psalms 81:4: "Blow the shofar on the [first day of the] month, when the [moon] is covered for our holiday".

The traditional greeting on Rosh Hashanah is "Shana Tova" IPA /ʃaˈna toˈva/, Hebrew for "A Good Year". Because Jews are being judged by God for the coming year, a longer greeting translates as "May You Be Written and Sealed for a Good Year" (ketiva ve-chatima tovah).

During the afternoon of the first day occurs the practice of tashlikh, the symbolic casting away of sins by throwing either stones or bread crumbs into flowing waters.

Rosh Hashanah meals often include apples and honey, to symbolize a "sweet new year". Various other foods with a symbolic meaning may be served, depending on local minhag (custom), such as tongue or other meat from the head (to symbolise the "head" of the year). Typically, round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of the year. On the second night, new fruits are served to warrant inclusion of the shehecheyanu blessing, the saying of which would otherwise doubtful (as the second day is part of the "long day" mentioned above).


One takes a piece of this fruit (watch out - pomegranate juice stains in the worst way!) and says, "May it be Your will that our merits be numerous as (the seeds of) the pomegranate."

What's the deal? There are 613 commandments in the Torah for a Jew to fulfill. An individual pomegranate supposedly has 613 seeds. (Try counting them.... I did once, and though we lost exact count, there were more than 600 and less and 625 seeds - so it was awfully close!) By eating the pomegranate, we figuratively show our desire and hope to fulfill all 613 commandments, and by doing so, we will be able to accrue a nice amount of merit.

In the Hebrew Bible

In the earliest times the Hebrew year began in autumn with the opening of the economic year. There followed in regular succession the seasons of seed-sowing, growth and ripening of the corn under the influence of the former and the latter rains, harvest and ingathering of the fruits. In harmony with this was the order of the great agricultural festivals, according to the oldest legislation, namely, the feast of unleavened bread at the beginning of the barley harvest, in the month of Abib; the feast of harvest, seven weeks later; and the feast of ingathering at the going out or turn of the year (See Exodus 23:14-17; Deuteronomy 16:1-16).

It is likely that the new year was celebrated from ancient times in some special way. The earliest reference to such a custom is, probably, in the account of the vision of Ezekiel (Ezek. xl. 1). This took place at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month (Tishri). On the same day the beginning of the year of jubilee was to be proclaimed by the blowing of trumpets (Lev. xxv. 9). According to the Septuagint rendering of Ezek. xlv. 20, special sacrifices were to be offered on the first day of the seventh month as well as on the first day of the first month. This first day of the seventh month was appointed by the Law to be "a day of blowing of trumpets". There was to be a holy convocation; no servile work was to be done; and special sacrifices were to be offered (Lev. xxiii. 23-25; Num. xxix. 1-6). This day was not expressly called New-Year's Day, but it was evidently so regarded by the Jews at a very early period.

In rabbinic literature

Philo, in his treatise on the festivals, calls New-Year's Day the festival of the sacred moon and feast of the trumpets, and explains the blowing of the trumpets as being a memorial of the giving of the Law and a reminder of God's benefits to mankind in general ("De Septennario," § 22).

The Mishnah, the core text of Judaism's oral law, contains the first known reference to the "Day of Judgment". It says: "Four times in the year the world is judged: On Passover a decree is passed on the produce of the soil; on the Pentecost, on the fruits of the trees; on New-Year's Day all men pass before Him ("God"); and on the Feast of Tabernacles a decree is passed on the rain of the year.

According to rabbinic tradition, the creation of the world was finished on Tishri 1.

The observance of the 1st of Tishri as Rosh ha-Shanah is based principally on the mention of "Zikkaron" (= "memorial day"; Lev. xxiii. 24) and the reference of Ezra to the day as one "holy to the Lord" (Neh. viii. 9) seem to point. The passage in Psalms (lxxxi. 5) referring to the solemn feast which is held on New Moon Day, when the shofar is sounded, as a day of "mishpat" (judgment) of "the God of Jacob" is taken to indicate the character of Rosh ha-Shanah.

In Jewish thought, Rosh ha-Shanah is the most important judgment-day, on which all the inhabitants of the world pass for judgment before the Creator, as sheep pass for examination before the shepherd. It is written in the Talmud, in the tractate on Rosh Hashanah that three books of account are opened on Rosh ha-Shanah, wherein the fate of the wicked, the righteous, and those of an intermediate class are recorded. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life, and they are sealed "to live." The middle class are allowed a respite of ten days till Yom Kippur, to repent and become righteous ; the wicked are "blotted out of the book of the living" (Ps. lxix. 28).

The zodiac sign of the balance for Tishri is claimed to indicate the scales of judgment, balancing the meritorious against the wicked acts of the person judged. The taking of an annual inventory of accounts on Rosh ha-Shanah is adduced by Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac from the passage in Deut. xi. 12, which says that the care of God is directed from "the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year". The 1st of Tishri was considered as the beginning of Creation.

It is said in the Talmud that on Rosh ha-Shanah the means of sustenance of every person are apportioned for the ensuing year; so also are his destined losses.

Originally, only the 1st day of Tishri was celebrated as New-Year's Day in the Land of Israel prior to the time of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. However, ever since Jewish law has Rosh ha-Shanah celebrated for two days.

The Zohar, a medieval work of Kabbalah, lays stress on the universal observance of two days, and claims that the two passages in Job (i. 6 and ii. 1), "when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord," refer to the first and second days of Rosh ha-Shanah, observed by the Heavenly Court before the Almighty (Zohar, Pinehas, p. 231a).


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