What is Rosh Hashanah

What is Rosh Hashanah? Unlike the secular New Year on January 1, which is celebrated with parties and celebrating, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is more solemn. This holiday begins a ten-day period of self-reflection and repentance known as the Days of Awe. At the end of the ten-day period comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur together are called High Holidays because they are the holiest holidays of the Jewish year.

It is said that Jews must make repentance for all misdeeds of the past year before Yom Kippur in order to be sealed in "the Book of Life" for a good year to come. Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, in which God judges all people, but during the Days of Awe, Jewish people have the chance to make amends and repent for past sins, and be forgiven to start the year with a clean slate on Yom Kippur.

In Hebrew, Rosh means "head" and refers to the beginning. Hashanah means "the year." Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the month of Tishrei on the Hebrew calendar, which is the seventh month of the Jewish calendar year. Rosh Hashanah represents several "new years" at once and is also the new year for people, animals and legal contracts. The numerical year date also advances on Rosh Hashanah. Other "new years" on the Jewish calendar include a new year for trees, kings, and animal tithes.

Rosh Hashanah occurs in the beginning of the fall, usually around the beginning of September. It is calculated at 163 days after the first day of Passover, although adjustments are made so that it does not fall on Shabbat. Rosh Hashanah, like all Jewish holidays, begins at sundown before the first day. The sundown beginning of a holiday is known as Erev, in this case, Erev Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated for two days, because in ancient days, it took longer to get the message to outlying areas that the start of the holiday was coming. Two days were celebrated to be sure to include the correct day and account for time zones, as Israel may be half a day ahead or behind other places in the world. Now the two days are celebrated both in Israel and the diaspora as part of Jewish tradition.

Rosh Hashanah Traditions
Rosh Hashanah is observed as a yom tov, which is a category of holiday that includes prohibitions on the 34 categories of work. Among these prohibitions are driving, writing, cooking and exchanging money. Focus is supposed to be on prayer, family and self-reflection. Shabbat is also a yom tov, but additional prohibitions are included on Rosh Hashanah as well.

The holiday is heralded by the blowing of the Shofar, a ram's horn. The Shofar's sound, loud and horn-like, is supposed to "wake up" the community to pay attention to their behavior during the past year. The Shofar is blown several times during the day on Rosh Hashanah, each morning in Ilul, the month leading up to Tishrei, and also at the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Shofar blowing takes practice and skill in order to recreate the three distinct Shofar calls.

The names for the Shofar calls are Tekiah, Teruah and Shevarim. Tekiah is a loud, long note. Teruah is a series of nine or more short bursts and Shevarim is a series of three medium-length notes. The entire Shofar service will include a long list of repeated and continuous patterns of all three calls, and it ends with a Tekiah Gedolah, or extremely long Tekiah. Each call represents an idea related to repentance: realization, wailing and crying (sadness and regret over doing wrong), and resolution. The Shofar service is included in the High Holiday prayerbook, called a Machzor.

A ceremony called Tashlich is traditionally observed on Rosh Hashanah. This involves throwing crumbs into a natural body of moving water. Throwing crumbs into water symbolizes "throwing away" the sins of the past year, in order to start the new year fresh. The Jewish concept of sin is actually called Chet, which translates to "missing the mark."

Traditional Rosh Hashanah foods include apple slices dipped in honey, or challah dipped in honey for a sweet year. Some Jewish families eat hard-boiled eggs for a good year because eggs represent life. Some regional traditions may include food such as tongue or fish heads because they are from the head of an animal, and that represents the head of the year.

Finally, the traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting is "L'Shana Tovah," which means "to a good year."

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