The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) on both mornings of the holiday (except on Shabbat), which is normally done in the synagogue as part of the day’s services.
Rosh Hashanah feasts traditionally include round challah bread (studded with raisins) and apples dipped in honey, as well as other foods that symbolize our wishes for a sweet year.
Other Rosh Hashanah observances include candle lighting in the evenings and desisting from creative work.
Together with Yom Kippur (which follows 10 days later), it is part of the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe, or High Holidays).
Rosh Hashanah has multiple names that invoke different components of the day:
- Yom Hadin (The Day of Judgment) — This is a time when we each stand before God as the Ultimate Judge and are called to judge our own actions as well.
- Yom Hazikaron (The Day of Remembrance) — We pray that God will “remember” us by inscribing us in the Book of Life, and we “remember” our own deeds over the past year.
- Yom Harat Olam (The Day the World Was Conceived) — Rosh Hashanah is associated with creation based on a tradition that the world was created in the month of Tishrei.
- Yom Teruah (The Day of Blasting) — The shofar is sounded at Rosh Hashanah services as a call to repentance.
Rosh Hashanah is both a joyful and serious occasion. It is associated with creation based on a tradition from the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 10b) that the world was created in the month of Tishrei. Because of this, one of the many names of Rosh Hashanah is “yom harat olam” (the birthday of the world).
At the same time, Rosh Hashanah is a day of accounting and judgment. The High Holiday liturgy states, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed…” This refers to the belief that on Rosh Hashanah, the Book of Life is opened, and on Yom Kippur, our fates are sealed for the coming year (we hope we will be inscribed in the Book of Life). This is a time when we each stand before God as the Ultimate Judge and when we are called to judge our own actions as well. That is why another name for Rosh Hashanah is “Yom Hadin,” the day of judgment.
The theme of accounting and judgment begins in the month of Elul (leading up to Rosh Hashanah) when Jews engage in cheshbon hanefesh (“an accounting of the soul”). This entire month is a “preparatory period” of introspection and reflection about our mistakes in the past year and how we can improve our behaviour in the coming year. There are a number of special observances in the month of Elul. The shofar is sounded immediately following morning services as a call to repentance, and Psalm 27 and selichot (prayers of repentance) are recited. Sephardic Jews begin reciting selichot on the second day of the Hebrew month of Elul, while Ashkenazi Jews start reciting them on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.
One of the central themes of Rosh Hashanah and the High Holiday season is teshuvah (meaning “repentance” or “return”). This describes the process in which we acknowledge what we have done wrong, feel regret and vow not to do it again. Jewish tradition says that through teshuvah, we can influence our own fate and have an opportunity to be inscribed in the Book of Life. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer states this idea: “But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.”
If you’re attending a Rosh Hashanah celebration, here are a few things you can expect.
- Apples and honey: Jews traditionally dip apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah to express their wish for a sweet new year.
- New fruit: It is customary to eat a new, seasonal fruit that hasn’t been tasted since the previous year to symbolize the new year.
- Round challah: Instead of braided challah, a round challah is served on Rosh Hashanah, symbolizing the circular nature of the year.
- Brisket, chicken, tzimmes, kugel: These traditional Jewish foods are frequently served at Rosh Hashanah meals in Ashkenazi Jewish homes.
- Chicken, lamb, dried fruits, rice, couscous, sweet potato, pumpkin or leek patties: These foods are frequently on the Rosh Hashanah menu in Sephardic Jewish homes.