I’ve spoken to several people recently who don’t plan to attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah, but who want to find meaningful ways to celebrate the holiday. And I know others who do go to synagogue, but who are looking for additional ways to enhance their celebration of the day. So here are some ideas for celebrating Rosh Hashanah outside of a synagogue, regardless of whether or not you also attend services:
Have a Rosh Hashanah Seder: You don’t have to wait for Passover to have a seder. In fact, many Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews have a seder on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. This seder, which has its origins in the Talmud, is called a Seder Yehi Ratzon (“seder of God’s will”), and just like the Passover seder, it has foods which are invested with meaning. Each food symbolizes a wish for the year ahead, and a special blessing is recited before eating each food. As explained on the My Jewish Learning website: “With each blessing, the mundane aspect of food is garnished with a sense of holiness, poignancy, and even humor.” To learn about the foods and blessings that are part of the Rosh Hashanah seder, click here or here.
Have a Special Meal: Even if you don’t want to have a Rosh Hashanah seder, you can still have a special holiday meal. There are lots of foods traditionally associated with the holiday that you can include with your meal, such as apples dipped in honey (for a sweet new year); a round challah (which reminds us of the circle of life, as well as the cyclical nature of the passage of a year), which is also traditionally dipped in honey (learn how to make a round challah); apple cake and honey cake; and pomegranates (it’s been said that there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate, corresponding to the 613 commandments in the Torah). You can find Rosh Hashanah recipes featuring symbolic foods here.
Do Tashlich: It’s traditional on the first day of Rosh Hashanah to go to a running body of water (preferably one with fish) and symbolically cast away your sins by throwing food into the water (while in the past, bread crumbs were used, we have become aware of healthier options to throw to the ducks such as lettuce, grapes or oats). Many synagogues have Tashlich ceremonies on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah (or the second day if the first day falls on Shabbat) that people who aren’t members are welcome to attend, or you could do a ceremony on your own. Learn more about Tashlich here. There’s also a fun and easy alternative ritual using chalk if you’re not near water.
Engage in Cheshbon HaNefesh (“Accounting of the Soul”): It’s customary during the month of Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, to engage in the process of Cheshbon HaNesfesh, introspection and reflecting on the past year. Whether or not you’ve done this, Rosh Hashanah is a great time to take stock and to think about—and maybe discuss with others—aspects of yourself that you would like to improve upon in the year ahead, as well as those things you’re proud of from the past year.
Do Teshuvah (“Return,” “Repentance”): The High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashanah, are a time for teshuvah and forgiveness. Judaism teaches that we must first seek forgiveness from people we have wronged over the past year before we can seek forgiveness from God. In order to fully do teshuvah, you have to not just admit and regret your wrongdoing, but you also have to learn from your mistakes and not repeat them. On or before Rosh Hashanah, you can ask people for forgiveness for things you have done to hurt them in the past year, and you can resolve not to commit the same wrongdoings in the future. To learn more about teshuvah click here and here.
Spend Time in Nature: One family I know, who choose not to attend services on Rosh Hashanah, like to spend the day taking a long hike together. They appreciate this time to focus on each other (no cell phones are allowed!) and on nature. Rosh Hashanah is, after all, the Birthday of the World, so why not spend part of the day enjoying the natural beauty of the world?