Amy J. Kramer
Rosh Hashanah, which literally means the head of the year, commemorates the anniversary of the creation of the world. It is celebrated on the first and second days of the seventh Hebrew month, Tishri. Depending on the solar calendar, Rosh Hashanah occurs in September or October.
Rosh Hashanah, when all living things are judged, is often referred to as the beginning of the Jewish New Year. However, the Hebrew month of Nissan, in which Passover is celebrated, is the first month of the Jewish calendar.
Rosh Hashanah is actually only one of four symbolic Jewish new year celebrations. The Talmud identifies these as:
Nisan: The Hebrew month of Passover marks the birth of the Jews as a free nation. It was also the symbolic new year day for kings.
Elul: The Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashanah was the symbolic new year for tithing animals, an ancient form of giving tzedakah, or charity;
Shevat: The Hebrew month of the holiday, Tu Bishvat, was the symbolic new year for trees.
Tishri: The Hebrew month of Rosh Hashanah, was the symbolic anniversary of the creation of the world.
The commandment to observe Rosh Hashanah is found in the second and third books of the Torah, the five books of Moses:
In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation... and you shall bring an offering made by fire unto the Lord. Leviticus 23:24-5.
In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a holy day; you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the shofar is trumpeted. Numbers 29:1.
The first two days of Tishri were not called Rosh Hashanah until Talmudic times. Jewish leaders of the day may have been reluctant to promote large celebrations around a fall new year because moon festivals were common among pagan religions. Many Near Eastern religions, for example, celebrated divine coronation festivals in the Fall.
By the fourth century, B.C.E., when the Jews returned from Babylonian exile to build the second temple, Rosh Hashanah was well established. By the time of the Mishnah, the codification of Jewish oral
tradition, Rosh Hashanah had developed a more serious tone. Now, having suffered the loss of the second temple, Rosh Hashanah emphasized the anniversary of creation, and of G-d as judge, dispensing mercy or justice to those who do or do not repent their sins.
The Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as Yom Teruah, the day of sounding the shofar, the traditional ram's horn. It is also called Yom Ha'Din, the day of judgment as well as Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembering. Yom Hazikaron is a reference to the patriarch Abraham who offered his only son, Isaac, to G-d as proof of his obedience. As the result of his readiness to sacrifice Isaac, G-d caused a ram to appear and be killed instead. According to Jewish tradition, this sacrifice is believed to have occurred the first of Tishri.
Today, aside from liturgical additions and literary interpretations made by poets during the Middle Ages, the customs, traditions, mood and spirit of Rosh Hashanah remain basically unchanged.
Amy J. Kramer
Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days, is unlike other religious, ethnic or cultural New Year celebrations.
For example, the first of January, the most famous of all new year celebrations, is marked each year by elaborate parties, music, food, countdowns till midnight and toasting. And, while Jews around the world celebrate New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, there is an awareness that the celebration is not their own. It is, rather, something adopted, separate from the deeply personal and awesome meaning of Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah is unique because it is both serious and festive. It is a time of spiritual renewal through prayer and deep personal reflection. It is also a time for families and friends to get together, make amends, ask each other's forgiveness and strive to make the next year better. Most important, it is the recognition of G-d as king and judge over all living things. It is also the realization that our behavior toward G-d and each other, is literally weighed and judged and ultimately sealed for life or death at the close of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Fortunately, according to our sages, there is a way to reverse a bad decree. An arduous, spiritual journey is undertaken requiring three key elements:
This journey, which is different and varies in difficulty for everyone, traditionally begins in Elul, (September in the English calendar) the Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashanah.
Teshuvah, tfiloh, and tzedakah, may sound relatively easy, but they are not. The rabbis understood this, and to assist Jews everywhere, they designed a kind of road map, with the first of Elul as the starting gate, and the tenth of Tishri, Yom Kippur, as the finish line.
In between, there are many turns and twists and hurdles to jump. If you make it to the end with a pure heart and few false turns, you may cross the finish line and win the big prize: Divine forgiveness and inscription in the Book of Life.
Laws & Customs
Amy J. Kramer
Your spiritual journey begins in Elul, the Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashanah which is usually the beginning of September.
During Elul it is customary to blow the shofar, the ram's horn, in the synagogue, during weekday services. The shofar, the most visible symbol of Rosh Hashanah, is a reminder of the animal that was sacrificed in place of the patriarch, Isaac.
Shofar: The ram's horn undergoes a special cleaning process where it is treated and hollowed to produce three basic sounds:
Teki'yah, a single blast
Teru'ah, a series of three short blasts
Shevarim, a series of short, staccato blasts
Long ago, the shofar was used to herald important events like the new moon and the start of holidays. It was also used to call the Israelites to war. However, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the wail of the shofar, both plaintive and stirring, is designed to awaken the heart of every Jew, no matter how old, to repentance and a closer relationship with G-d.
During Elul, Jews everywhere wish each other Shanah Tovah, a good year; or Le-shanah tovah tikatevu, may you be inscribed for a good year. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is customary to add Le-Shanah tovah tikkateivu ve-tehateimu, may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.
New Year's Cards
The tradition of giving and receiving New Year greetings, written or oral, is another way Jews express good wishes for the coming year. New Year cards or letters are an excellent means of reconnecting with family and friends far and near. Many families use this time of year to catch up with each other and let friends and relatives know about some of their most significant achievements and upcoming events.
Remembering the Dead
Many families use this time of year to visit the grave sites of loved ones. There is the feeling in Judaism that the thoughts or prayers of the deceased can intercede on behalf of the living. This belief is particularly important between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when every little bit helps.
As the month of Elul draws to an end, an important series of prayers is begun the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah called Slichot, which means forgiveness. Usually beginning around midnight, these prayers, which describe the 13 merciful attributes of G-d, are meant to prepare oneself for the upcoming holiday. The prayers, usually recited at the synagogue, are repeated daily, just before sunrise until Rosh Hashanah. It is also customary this month to recite Psalm 27 during prayer services.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, even mine adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell.
This psalm pleads with G-d to help us before our enemies and illustrates our faith in G-d as our savior.
Among traditional circles, the practice of hatarat nedarim, the absolution of vows, is observed. One person asks three others to act as their bet din, or religious court. In turn, each of the four asks the other three to act as their bet din. The point of this ritual, which can be found in the siddur, or prayer book, is to come before G-d on Rosh Hashanah without any baggage, free of unfulfilled promises and vows that could be held against you.
Finally, it is Erev Rosh Hashanah, the eve of the holiday, and at sunset, with family gathered at home, Rosh Hashanah is welcomed with the lighting of two candles.
Two blessings are recited
Baruch ata adonai, eloheynu melech ha'olam, asher kiddishanu be'mitzvotav ve'tzivanu, le'hadlik ner shel (shabbat) v' yom tov.
Note: If Rosh Hashanah begins erev shabbat, on Friday night, light the holiday candles first and then say the blessing for Shabbat.
Blessed are You, O Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, to light the candle of this hold day.
Baruch ata adonai, eloheynu melech ha'olam, she-he-chiyanu, ve'kiy'manu, ve'higianu la'zman hazeh.
Blessed are You, O Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has kept us in life, and has preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.
A special kiddush, a blessing usually said over wine or grape juice, is recited before Sabbath and holiday meals. This special blessing differs slightly from other holidays and is usually chanted with a special melody. It emphasizes Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of creation, the day of remembrance, and the day of shofar blowing.
Challah is a traditional Jewish bread. Unlike the Sabbath, when it is customary to make a bracha, or blessing, over two, twisted loaves, on Rosh Hashanah, the blessing for bread, is made over two round challah loaves. One reason is that a round challah symbolizes a crown, a reminder of the kingship of G-d, the holiday's most important theme. Another explanation is that the round shape is a symbol of the circle of life and our hope that our lives will continue without end.
Some bake their challah with a ladder on top as a reminder that G-d decides who will ascend and descend the ladder of life. A lesser known custom is baking challah in the shape of a bird as described in Isaiah: 31:5 As hovering birds, so will the Lord protect Jerusalem.
Apples and Honey
Of the many popular foods eaten during Rosh Hashanah, few are more anticipated than the dipping of apples into honey. On Rosh Hashanah, the honey, which is eaten raw, is spread on challah instead of salt, which is used on Sabbath and other Holiday festivals. Many families set aside a silver or special container in which to place the honey.
During the High Holidays, many cooks make a special effort to make recipes with honey, such as honey cakes or tzimmes, a sweet stew. During kiddush, a special blessing is recited before and after the apples are dipped into honey.
Baruch ata adonai eloheynu melech ha'olam, bo-rey, pri, ha'etz.
Blessed are you, O Lord our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the tree.
Yehi ratzon mi'lfanecha adonai eloheynu ve'elohey avoteynu, she' tehadesh aleynu shanah tovah u'metukah.
May it be your will, O Lord our G-d, and G-d of our fathers, to renew unto us a happy and sweet year.
It is custom to set the holiday table with one's finest, from the table linen and flowers, to dishes and glass ware. Families often buy new clothes for each other and wear them the eve of Rosh Hashanah. This custom is derived from an important Torah principle, called Hiddur Mitzvah, to enhance the act or ritual, which simply means taking the extra time and effort to make what you are doing more beautiful and special.
Therefore, Kiddush, recited over wine, is made over your most special, treasured goblet, something you keep all year and may only take out on Sabbath and holidays. The two, traditionally round challot, an egg or white bread, may rest on a special board or silver tray and are covered with a special embroidered cloth or with something you or your children have made.
Likewise, the blessings for apples and honey are made using a special honey dish, only used on Rosh Hashanah. In the spirit of hiddur mitzvah, you may want to use non-drip creamed honey or flavored honey, like cinnamon, for a special touch. Or, try various seasonal apples, like Winesap, Gala, Red Delicious, Jonathan, Stayman, Cortland and McIntosh, for delicious honey dipping.
In Sephardic households, Jews of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent, often begin their holiday meal with a whole fish, including the head, as a wish for prosperity, fertility and good luck in the coming year. Other Sephardic Jews serve covered baskets of fruit so nobody knows what is inside, just as nobody knows what the new year will bring.
This custom spread to other Jews around the world and we now wait until Rosh Hashanah to make blessings on new, or unique fruits. Figs, kumquats, persimmon, kiwi, Asian pear, pomegranates, and papaya, are examples of fruits not usually used during the year. The blessings on new fruits are traditionally recited the second night of Rosh Hashanah.
Another unique, cooked dish eaten on Rosh Hashanah is tzimmes, which literally means a mixture, and is made from carrots, cinnamon, yams, prunes and honey. The carrots are traditionally cut in the shape of coins, another symbol of wealth for the new year. It is customary, however, to avoid eating nuts since the Hebrew letters of the word egoz, or nut, have the same numerical value as the Hebrew word for sin.
The afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah it is customary to perform a ritual known as tashlich. The ritual involves walking to a river or any body of water and reciting specific prayers.
The prayer is accompanied by either the emptying of one's pockets or the tossing of bread crumbs, symbolizing the casting-off of our sins, which are carried away by the water. If the first day occurs on the Sabbath, tashlich is postponed until the second afternoon of Rosh Hashanah..
Tashlich is based on the following biblical passage:
You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea, and may You cast all the sins of Your people, the house of Israel, into a place where they shall be no more remembered or visited or ever come to mind. Micah 7:18- 20
Next to home, the synagogue is the most important place on Rosh Hashanah. Over the next two days, the entire community will spend the majority of time praying at the synagogue or temple.
Dress & Decorum
Services tend to start a little earlier in the morning and tend to run later into the early part of the afternoon. Traditionally, married men wear a kittel, a white, ankle-length robe over their clothes as a symbol of purity. Married women, in traditional synagogues, wear a head covering, like a hat. Everyone davens, or prays, from a special siddur called a machtzor, a special prayer book containing all relevant Torah readings and tfilot, prayers, for both days of Rosh Hashanah.
There should be little talking on either side of the mehitzah, a physical barrier, like a curtain, Orthodox synagogues use to separate men and women over the ages of twelve and thirteen. The entire congregation should be focused on prayer, and should be listening intently to the chazan or shaliach tzibur, which can be the rabbi or any member of the congregation considered devout enough to lead special portions of the service.
Three central prayers dominate the davening on Rosh Hashanah:
Avinu Malkaynu, Unetaneh Tokef, and the Musaf Amidah.
Repetition of Avinu Malkaynu, our Father, our King, occurs throughout the prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is an emotional and highly melodic song dating between the second and sixth centuries. The prayer lists 44 admissions of guilt for which we ask G-d's forgiveness. All but the final four are chanted silently.
Unetaneh Tokef, usually sung solo by the cantor or shaliach tzibur, is a dramatic hymn written by a rabbi in the Middle Ages who was tortured for refusing to convert of Christianity. In it, he vividly describes the moment in which each individual is judged. At this time in the service, the entire congregation is silent, as the prayer is chanted slowly.
On Rosh Hashanah our destiny is written; at the end of Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water?
The Musaf Amidah, also known as the service for the sounding of the shofar, is divided into three blessings:
Malchiot, rulership, proclaims G-d's eternal power over all the earth;
Zichronot, memory, stresses the history of the Jewish people; and
Shofarot, blowing of the shofar, links the shofar to imporatant past events like the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and to the future, when at the time of the Messiah, the shofar will be heard again.
Each blessing is centered around ten verses, three from the Chumash, the five Books of Moses; three from Ketuvim, writings; and three from Nevi'im, prophets; and one again from the Chumash. They all reflect three of the most significant themes of Judaism.
The acceptance of G-d as King of the Unviverse.
The fact that G-d punishes the wicked and rewards the good.
The belief that G-d revealed Himself at Mt. Sinai and will do again in the Messianic times.
The Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah, include the birth of Isaac on the first day, and the sacrifice of Isaac, on the second. Haftarot, readings following the Torah portion, include the birth of the prophet Samuel from Shoftim, the Book of Judges; and parts of the Book of Jeremiah on the second.
The themes of birth after barrenness, deliverance after exile, and rescue from sacrifice are the main themes of these readings.
DAYS IN BETWEEN ROSH HASHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR
Days of Awe
Also known as the Ten Days of Repentance, these are the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In Hebrew, they are called Aseret Yemay Tshuvah, and offer another chance for spiritual renewal.
Fast of Gedaliah
On the third day of Tishri, Jews observe a minor fast known as the Tzom Gedaliah, the fast of Gedaliah. This commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah, the last governor of Judea following the destruction of the first temple, in 586 B.C. His death marked the end of Jewish rule and led to the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people. It is one of four fast days relating to the destruction of the temple.
The Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return. Besides its special haftorah, this Sabbath is usually marked in synagogues with a lengthy Davar Torah, or sermon, about repentance. This custom started in Eastern Europe when rabbis spoke twice a year - once on Shabbat Shuvah, and once on Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath, which takes place one week before Passover.
Heroes & Villains
Amy J. Kramer
The stories associated with Jewish holidays are well known. They are the stuff of books and movies. However, they are not all just for children at bedtime. They have lessons for everyone who reads and discusses them. The purpose of this section is to mention the most famous and some not so famous, in the hope that you will find new meaning in the stories we all take for granted.
The Sacrifice of Isaac
On Rosh Hashanah, we read the portion of the Torah that tells the story of the birth of Isaac, and the story of the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac, the only child of Abraham. As you recall, Abraham and Sarah were childless for most of their marriage. Finally, in her old age, Sarah conceived, and Isaac was born. The name, Isaac, or Yitzchak in Hebrew, comes from the Hebrew word, l'tzchok, to laugh. Sarah was so dumbfounded to learn she was pregnant, she laughed out loud at the thought that at 90 years old, she was going to give birth.
Isaac grew up the cherished son of his parents, so it was a great shock to Abraham when one day G-d instructed him to take his only child, his beloved son, Isaac, over a mountaintop to be sacrificed at an altar.
Now, it's unclear from a cursory reading, to tell who is the hero and who is the villain in this story. Explaining this story to your children may be challenging and will likely bring up very interesting questions that may lead to debate and discussion. Try asking them who they think winds up the hero or the villain.
Clearly, G-d could be the villain in this piece for commanding Abraham to kill his only son. Or, maybe it is Abraham, for he seems willing to take his son and sacrifice him to G-d.
Isaac seems obvious in his role as hero, because knowing it or not, he goes with Abraham and is willing to lay down his life. Or, maybe Abraham is the hero for showing his faith and obedience in G-d in such an unmistakable way. And, finally, ask your children if they think the biggest hero of the story might be G-d, for He is the one who stops Abraham, who is about to kill Isaac, and tells him it was only a test and to sacrifice a goat wandering in the bushes instead.
This story cannot be taken at face value. There are so many deeper levels to explore. There is a famous midrash which says that at the time of creation, G-d prepared three things for later use: The ram's horn, the burning bush and the dove that signaled the end of the mabul, the flood that destroyed Noah's generation. Chazal, our sages, tell us that G-d always prepares the refuah, the cure, before the macah, or suffering.
It can also be argued that G-d had no intention of ever allowing Isaac to be sacrificed. Certainly, nowhere in the Jewish tradition is human sacrifice ever mentioned or practiced. One may also debate the fairness of such a test put before a father, but Abraham was no ordinary test subject.
Abraham was the first Jew. On his own, he realized that the idols his father, Terach, his family and friends worshipped were statues made of clay. He believed in one G-d and that G-d was as real to Abraham as his own wife and children. When G-d told Abraham to take his wife, his servants, and his cattle, and go to a new country called Canaan, Abraham obeyed unquestioningly. In Abraham's lifetime, G-d spoke to him and Abraham spoke back.
Today, we rely on faith and prayer when talking to G-d. It is our hope that through our observance of the mitzvot and through our daily prayers, that G-d listens and answers us.
Maybe that is why the ram's horn has remained a symbol for the ages. On Rosh Hashanah, when we hear the wail of the shofar, we remember how G-d was merciful to Abraham in sparing Isaac. On Rosh Hashanah, we pray that like Abraham, G-d will spare our lives and the lives of those that we love.
The Birth of Samuel
A lesser known story we read about every Rosh Hashanah retells the birth of the Prophet Samuel. This story has many parallels to the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. See if after discussing both, you and your children can find them.
Like Isaac, Samuel was born to a childless couple, Hannah and Elchanon of Elkanah. Like Abraham, Elchanon had two wives, one who had children and one who did not. Like Sarah, Hannah was the cherished wife, but also the saddest, for it was her greatest disapointment that she was barren. Abraham's other wife, Hagar, and Elchanon's other wife, P'ninah, according to the midrash, taunted the childless spouse.
Hannah decided to seek help. She went to Elimelech, the Cohen Gadol, or high priest. She made a shvuah, an oath, that if G-d would grant her a child, she would turn him over to the service of G-d. Hannah started to pray. The text says only her lips were moving and no sound was heard. When the High Priest saw her, he thought she was drunk. Hannah told him that she was not drunk, only praying.
It is important to note, that it is Hannah's method of praying that Jews emulate to this day. Before Hannah, people prayed silently. Today, Jews pray by very quietly uttering the words of the prayer.
In time, Hannah did give birth, and she named her son, Samuel, Shmuel, for G-d had heard her prayers. Hannah also kept her promise, and when her son was old enough, she brought him to Elimelech so that he could live with him and learn the service of G-d.
On her own, Hannah sacrificed her son to G-d. Not in the physical way that Abraham almost did, but in a way almost as final. In a kind of irony, she gave up her only son as thanks for being granted her only son.
Samuel grew up to be one of our greatest prophets and advisers to our kings. He was the last appointed judge over the Jewish people before David was anointed king of Judea.
From Hannah, not Sarah, we learn the power of prayer. Sarah never thought she would conceive. She laughed out loud at the mere thought. From Abraham, we learn of a father's sacrifice and ultimate redemption. From Hannah, we learn of a mother's sacrifice, but in her case, there was no voice from the heaven telling her to keep her son and sacrifice an animal as thanks instead.
What can we learn from these two different, yet similar stories. G-d does not want us to die for our faith, to sacrifice our life here on earth. That was not why we were created. G-d gave us prayer, not because He needs it, but so that we can use it to elevate our life to a higher level.