Rosh Hashanah (literally “Head of the Year” in Hebrew) is the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is the first of the High Holy Days (or Jewish High Holidays), beginning a 10-day period of soul searching and contemplation that concludes with Yom Kippur. Traditionally, this period of 10 days, the Days of Awe in Hebrew—Yamim Nora’im—are for thinking about our behavior during the previous year, asking forgiveness from those we may have wronged, and pledging to make positive changes for the coming year.
Since Judaism uses a lunar calendar, the date will change every year on the Gregorian calendar, but most often, the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah falls in September or early October.
The history of Rosh Hashanah can be traced back to the sixth century B.C.E., though the holiday was never mentioned in the Torah. The phrase “Rosh Hashanah” was first mentioned in the Mishna ( the first major written collection of the Jewish oral laws) in 200 C.E.
Despite the fact that Rosh Hashanah occurs in the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, the holiday is designated as the “Jewish New Year”. While the holiday might have originated with the Babylonians, the rabbis associated Rosh Hashanah with Jewish meaning as the anniversary of the creation of the earth, or the creation of mankind. Another reason is the importance of Tishrei as the seventh month, and therefore the year’s Sabbath.
During Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people pray to God for forgiveness for the wrongdoings of the previous year. We also make a mental note not to make the same errors in the following year. In this way, Rosh Hashanah is a chance for us to better ourselves. It’s a holiday that encourages us to develop as individuals. And that’s a wonderful thing.
Rosh Hashanah is observed in various forms by Jewish people all around the world. Each family has its own traditions for Rosh Hashanah, which usually depends on where they are from. At the synagogue, a special prayer service is provided. The service incorporates the shofar, a special instrument made from a ram’s horn that is blown during Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur.
Many Jewish families return to their residence after synagogue services to partake in a celebratory meal rich in significance and tradition. In honor of Rosh Hashanah, some people dress up in new or unique clothes and set their tables with fine furnishings and arrangements.
While some spend Rosh Hashanah at synagogue, there are many ways to observe the Jewish New Year if you choose to spend them outside of a synagogue setting. There might be alternative offerings in your community, so make sure to do some searching (try your local Federation or JCC) or ask people in your community to see what your options are.
You can also create your own practices such as spending some time in nature, walking or hiking or taking some time to yourself to think in a calm space. Some might do community volunteer work somewhere meaningful, or spend time at home, greeting friends and family while talking about the coming year. Take the time to mark this important Jewish holiday in a way that feels authentic and meaningful to you.
A new day in the Jewish calendar begins at sunset, so the traditional start of Rosh Hashanah is the evening meal before the day of the holiday. Menus and customs vary from home to home, often based on family tradition and family origin. Those who are Ashkenazi, whose family origin is Eastern Europe, might make or buy a round challah with raisins: The roundness of the bread symbolizes the never-ending cycle of time and the sweetness of the raisins symbolizes the hope that the coming year will be a sweet one.
Many families will also serve apples dipped in honey symbolizing the wish for a sweet new year. Those with Sephardic origin, families who come from southern Europe, North Africa or the Middle East might serve pomegranates and bean-based dishes and might even dip challah in sugar rather than honey. (Find Rosh Hashanah recipes here.)