An Introduction to the Jewish High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah (literally 'head of the year' in Hebrew) is the Jewish equivalent of New Year's. Observation begins on sundown of the last day of the Hebrew month of Elul, 10 days prior to Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. This Jewish holy time period is known as the Days of Awe, Yamim Nora'im.

The actual dates of Rosh Hashanah fall on the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, between the middle and end of September. Rosh Hashanah is the only Jewish holiday that covers two consecutive days.

Meaning. Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah during the seventh month of their calendar because it marks God's creation of the world. The Hebrew calendar starts with the month of Nissan when the Jews were delivered from slavery in Egypt.

Observation. According to Jewish tradition, God decides in this time period who will live or die in the following year. Therefore, Rosh Hashanah marks a time of self-reflection and prayers of forgiveness for Jews. All are encouraged to repent, to make repairs on damaged relationships, and to prepare for spiritual improvements in the coming year.

In short, the focus of Rosh Hashanah is about life, even if death is a possibility, with an emphasis on optimism for the New Year. It is about becoming a better person within the home and the community.

Customs. After Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah has the second longest prayer service of the year. Temple services begin in the early morning and last until afternoon. The service for Rosh Hashanah includes its own prayer book, the Makhzor.

On Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people greet each other with "may you have a good year" or "for a good year."

The shofar, a ram's horn, is an important musical instrument that is sounded 100 times each day of Rosh Hashanah. The sound is to remind people of the significance of reflection.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews observe the Tashlich, a casting off ritual that involves throwing pieces of bread or other food into flowing water. This tossing of sustenance symbolizes shedding the sins from the prior year.

Significant holiday foods include loaves of round challah bread and apple wedges dunked in honey. The circular bread represents the extension of life, and the honey and apples symbolize hope for a "sweet" year to come.

Pomegranates, or other seasonal fruits, are customary foods for the second night. Pomegranates are the preferred choice because, according to legend, they have 613 seeds -- one for each of the commandments or mitzvot. The large number of seeds represents the hope of good deeds to come in the new year.

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