What Is Rosh Hashanah?

If the Jewish new year is celebrated on the first of Tishri, why does the Torah refer to it as the seventh month of the year?

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A Jewish man blows a shofar at the Kinneret.
A Jewish man blows a shofar at the Kinneret.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

It takes place during the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishri, which is generally in September (the lunar Jewish calendar does not precisely correspond with the Gregorian one).

Rosh Hashanah, which literally means “head of the year,” marks the beginning of the autumnal High Holiday season, when humanity is judged for its deeds during the year just past. It is followed, on the 10th of Tishri, by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when according to the same tradition a Jew’s fate for the coming year is “sealed.”

The period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is sometimes called the Ten Days of Repentance, to indicate the soul-searching and making of amends that are supposed to characterize the period.

Rosh Hashanah has its roots in the Torah (the Pentateuch), although it has a different name there: In both Exodus and Leviticus, it is referred to as the day of the “sounding of the horn” or the “day of remembrance,” and was supposed to take place at the beginning of the seventh – not the first – month, Tishri.

The reference to the horn may be an allusion to the ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of his son Isaac, after he had proven ready to make the ultimate sacrifice to God (Genesis 22). Or more generally, it may be a reference to the sacrifice made in the Temple in ancient times on this day. In any case, today, one of the key elements of the Rosh Hashanah synagogue service is the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn) – 100 notes, played according to a fixed score -- which many interpret as a “wake-up call” to the human conscience. If however the Rosh Hashanah service falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not blown, as that would fall into the category of forbidden “work,” like the playing of any musical instrument.

Choosing the first month of the Jewish year

Jewish tradition sees several different dates as marking the beginning of the year. Although the Bible generally refers to Nissan, the early spring month when Passover falls, as the first month, the numbering of years begins with Tishri, the seventh month.

According to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Eleazar, Rosh Hashanah was the day on which man and woman were created – that is, the sixth day of creation. According to tradition, the number of the Hebrew year (the year that overlapped with 2012-2013 was 5773) is supposed to indicate the number of years since creation of the world.

Also, Rosh Hashanah is also definitely the start of the Jewish year in respect to determining the timing of grain tithes and the beginning of the “sabbatical” year for the Land of Israel that takes place every seven years, known as "shnat shmita". (Other “new year’s” dates are Tu Bishvat, the 15th of Shvat, a sort of Hebrew Arbor Day, and the 1st of Elul, by which timing of animal tithes was marked.)

At least since the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 C.E., Rosh Hashanah has been celebrated for two days, both in the Diaspora and in Israel; this was meant in ancient times to allow for a margin of error for the sighting of the new moon that marks the opening of the month.

Like all Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown between the 29th of Elul and the 1st of Tishri.

Elul, the final month of the year, is to be spent preparing for the holiday, with penitential prayers, “Selihot,” being said during all or part of the month (traditions vary) and the shofar being blown early in the morning.

Saying it with food: Sweet stuffs for a sweet year

Most of the restrictions that apply to the Sabbath also pertain to Rosh Hashanah, although cooking is permitted under certain circumstances, unlike on Shabbat.

Many of the holiday’s rituals revolve around food, with a number of symbolic dishes being served: apple and honey, marking the hope for a “sweet” year, and also leeks, black-eyed peas, a fish head and pomegranate, among other things, whose Hebrew names are worked into puns that are supposed to express a variety of wishes for the new year. Also, the challah bread served on Rosh Hashanah – in fact, through Sukkot, which ends three weeks later – is round, another symbol of the cyclical nature of time.

Both days of Rosh Hashanah involve long synagogue services, with extra readings and prayers. Additionally, on the afternoon of the first day, it is traditional to visit a body of flowing water and throw bread crumbs, meant to symbolize one’s sins, into it. People greet each either by saying simply, “Shana Tova” – “have a good year” – or with more complicated formulas, such as “Leshana tova, tikateivu vetihamtemnu” – “may you be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year.”

Unlike sometimes raucous Western New Year’s celebrations, Rosh Hashanah, although festive, is an introspective period. The liturgy and Bible readings serve as constant reminders of the individual’s mortality, and of the personal responsibility we all bear for our behavior. But Rosh Hashanah also stands for forgiveness, and for the opportunity that returns with annual regularity to apologize, to make amends, and to try to be a better person.  

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