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FAQ: What is Rosh Hashanah?

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The Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah lasts from sundown on Sunday, September 29 until sundown on Tuesday, October 1, 2019. Here are the facts you need to know about the beginning of the Jewish New Year and the first of the High Holy Days.

What is Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, takes place in the fall during the first two days of the month of Tishrei. The phrase Rosh Hashanah means “the head of the year.” By rabbinical tradition, Rosh Hashanah can never fall on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday; if it does, it is postponed. The year 2019-2020 A.D. is year 5780 according to the Jewish calendar.

What is celebrated on Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah begins the Days of Awe or High Holy Days (Yamim Nora’im), ending 10 days later on Yom Kippur. Since at least the Middle Ages, Rosh Hashanah has been considered a Day of Judgment (Yom Hadin), when all the events of the coming year – including who would live or die, their eternal fate, and whether the year will be prosperous for the living – is determined. Judaism teaches that on Rosh Hashanah “the King is sitting on the throne of judgment and the books of life and the books of death are open before Him.” This begins a season of reflection on the previous year and returning from the path of sin (teshuvah) to righteousness. According to the Talmud (which has a tractate dedicated to the holiday), holy people are inscribed in the Book of Life, wicked people in the Book of Death, and those in the middle “are left with their judgment suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, their fate remaining undecided. If they merit, through the good deeds and mitzvot that they perform during this period, they are written for life; if they do not so merit, they are written for death.”

Does Rosh Hashanah commemorate an historic event?

According to rabbinical tradition, God created Adam and Eve on Rosh Hashanah. Some rabbinical traditions hold that Isaac was born, and nearly sacrificed, on that holiday, or that both the patriarch Joseph and the Israelites emerged from their Egyptian captivities on this day.

What is the origin of the Rosh Hashanah?

The Bible established that the Jewish people would gather on the first day of the seventh month to blow the ram’s horn (shofar), abstain from work, and make an offering in the Temple (Leviticus 23:23-25 and Number 26:1-6). Both passages go on to establish the feast of Yom Kippur.

How is the festival celebrated?

Technically, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated for two days, making it a yoma arichta (long day).

The prayers come from a special book, the Mahzor, which contains the services for the High Holy Days. The Torah readings for the first day commemorate the miraculous births of Isaac and the prophet Samuel. The readings on the second day include the binding of Isaac, when Abraham nearly sacrificed his son by divine command, and the restoration of the nation of Israel. Special prayers are added to recognize divine kingship, remember past sins, and mention the blowing of the shofar. One of these, the Unetanah tokef, summarizes the theology of the holiday:

We shall ascribe holiness to this day.

For it is awesome and terrible.

Your kingship is exalted upon it.

Your throne is established in mercy.

You are enthroned upon it in truth.

In truth You are the judge,

The exhorter, the all‑knowing, the witness,

He who inscribes and seals,

Remembering all that is forgotten.

You open the book of remembrance

Which proclaims itself,

And the seal of each person is there.

The great shofar is sounded,

A still small voice is heard.

The angels are dismayed,

They are seized by fear and trembling

As they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment!

For all the hosts of heaven are brought for judgment.

They shall not be guiltless in Your eyes

And all creatures shall parade before You as a troop.

As a shepherd herds his flock,

Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,

So do You cause to pass, count, and record,

Visiting the souls of all living,

Decreeing the length of their days,

Inscribing their judgment.

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,

Who shall live and who shall die,

Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,

Who shall perish by water and who by fire,

Who by sword and who by wild beast,

Who by famine and who by thirst,

Who by earthquake and who by plague,

Who by strangulation and who by stoning,

Who shall have rest and who shall wander,

Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,

Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,

Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,

Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

For Your praise is in accordance with Your name. You are difficult to anger and easy to appease. For You do not desire the death of the condemned, but that he turn from his path and live. Until the day of his death You wait for him. Should he turn, You will receive him at once. In truth You are their Creator and You understand their inclination, for they are but flesh and blood. The origin of man is dust, his end is dust. He earns his bread by exertion and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away. But You are King, God who lives for all eternity! There is no limit to Your years, no end to the length of Your days, no measure to the hosts of Your glory, no understanding the meaning of Your Name. Your Name is fitting unto You and You are fitting unto it, and our name has been called by Your Name. Act for the sake of Your Name and sanctify Your Name through those who sanctity Your Name.

What role does blowing the ram’s horn (shofar) play in Rosh Hashanah?

Perhaps the most striking part of Rosh Hashanah is blowing the shofar, or ram’s horn, in the synagogue 100 times. The shofar (which may not come from any other animal) reminds people of the ram sacrificed in Isaac’s place. The blast of a trumpet also coronated a king, and Rosh Hashanah enthrones God as king each year. The shofar is sounded in three specific ways: three short blasts (shevarim), nine staccato blasts (teruah), or a long, wailing cry (tekiah). Every Jewish male technically has an obligation to hear the shofar sound on this holiday; rabbis will often travel to make house calls for those who are unable to attend the service on the holiday. If Rosh Hashanah falls on the Sabbath (Shabbat), the horn is not sounded on that day of the two-day feast.

Why do Jews sometimes pray near a body of water on Rosh Hashanah?

Jewish people may pray and throw breadcrumbs into a lake or other body of water on Rosh Hashanah to symbolize their sins being cast into the deep. This service, known as Tashlich, was inspired by the promise that divine mercy would “cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).

Are there restrictions for Rosh Hashanah?

Jews are supposed to abstain from work on both days of the festival. Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday celebrated for two days inside Israel and in the diaspora, so no one accidentally works on this day. However, fasting is not required.

Are there other customs or observances?

It is traditional for families to light candles on both evenings, the second evening with a pre-existing flame (so no fire is kindled). On the first night, Jewish families share a special meal that traditionally includes challah bread dipped in honey, apples dipped in honey, and a fish or ram’s head. Sweet foods represent a desire for a sweet year, and the head is a petition to be “the head and not the tail.” Families may also eat pomegranate seeds, asking that their good deeds be as numerous as the sweet seeds. Bitter foods should not be eaten to avoid having a bitter year. Nuts are also avoided, because the Hebrew word (egoz) add up to 17, the same number as the pronunciation of the Hebrew word for sin (chet). On the second evening, they again have challah and honey, together with a new fruit they have not eaten since the last time it was in season (and sometimes purchase new clothes); this relates to one of the prayers recited this evening.

How can the Jewish New Year begin in the seventh month?

Passover falls during the first month of the Hebrew calendar, Nissan. However, the Mishnah says, “There are four new years: The first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of beasts. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishri. The first of Tishri is the new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year for trees.”

What is the appropriate greeting for Rosh Hashanah?

It is always appropriate to wish a Jewish person, “Shanah tovah” (for a happy new year), or “Shanah tovah u’metuka” (for a happy and sweet year). This may be exchanged throughout the Days of Awe. Some also use the Yiddish phrase “A gut gebentsht yohr” (a good and blessed year) and the response, “A gutten kvittl” (a good inscription). Before the holiday arrives, Jews may wish each other “Ketivah v’chatima tovah” (a good inscription and sealing). On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Jews may use the greeting “Leshana tovah tikatev v’tichatem” (for a male) or “Leshana tovah tikatevee v’tichatemee” (for a female); both mean, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” From Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, they may use the phrase “Gemar hatimah tovah,” which means “May you be sealed in the Book of Life.”

Related:

A Jewish perspective on justice, for Rosh Hashanah

FAQ: What is Yom Kippur?

FAQ: What is Sukkot, the ‘Feast of Tabernacles’?

FAQ: What is Hanukkah?

FAQ: What is Purim?

FAQ: What is the Jewish holiday of Passover?

Further resources from the Acton Institute on Judaism and economics:

Judaism, Law & the Free Market: An Analysis by Joseph Isaac Lifshitz

Judaism, Markets, and Capitalism: Separating Myth from Reality by Corinne Sauer and Robert M. Sauer

(Photo credit: MinoZig This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 4.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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